School Funding

Inmate education assistance works. Yet it is politically precarious.


A new proposal from the Ministry of Education approved the extension of the federal government Eligibility for Pell Grants for Prisoners from 2023. The proposal to codify Pell Grant eligibility came from many studies and experiences over the past decade indicating that inmates who receive degrees while incarcerated are better prepared to reintegrate into society. They are also less likely to reoffend and return to prison.

Pell Grant’s recent proposal is not the first time the government has turned to federal student aid and higher education to address recidivism – the rate at which a convicted person, after being released, would go back to jail. President Lyndon B. Johnson first provided such aid in the 1960s. Yet despite decades of effectiveness, prisoners’ access to Pell Grant aid was revoked in the crime of 1994. At that time, politicians from both major parties presented the aid as a handout to the “undeserving” to galvanize support for other small government “tough on crime” policies, and they successful. A look back at this history shows how the survival of federal prison education programs has always depended more on public opinion than on the actual success of these programs, which have proven to be extremely effective.

The inmates first received federal assistance for their post-secondary education due to Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) signed by Johnson. The purpose of the HEA was to provide federal financial aid to students from low-income families. Part of the HEA established student loans as an option to cover college fees, but it also expanded federal financial aid to offset tuition. Based on eligibility requirements, inmates wishing to pursue higher education while incarcerated could qualify for this student aid.

The HEA was one piece of legislation that reflected Johnson’s efforts to build a “great society” that could eradicate poverty, reduce crime, and abolish inequality. The same year he signed the HEA, Johnson also passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act as part of his “War on Crime,” which increased federal grants to law enforcement. local and state orders. Although Johnson envisioned these laws working together, these war-on-crime policies weakened the HEA’s Pell Grant initiatives over the following decades.

In the 1970s, the total number of Americans receiving Pell grants exploded from hundreds of thousands of students to over 2 million. Most federal student aid provided opportunities for students from low-income families outside of the prison system; only about 1% of federal student aid went to incarcerated students. Yet the influx of aid has greatly expanded higher education programs in prisons. Between 1973 and 1982, the number of prison programs—including college extension programs offering specializations in communications, criminal justice, and psychology—nearly doubled, from 182 to 350.

For prison officials and advocates, the Pell Grants for Prisoners have seen promising success. Inmates participating in secondary education programs fared better and guards considered them “more manageable”. These factors, including participation in and completion of a higher education program, favored attempts to apply for parole. Programs across the United States have also reported decreases in recidivism among inmate-students of up to 57%. A program that once reported 80% recidivism, noted rates as low as 10% in the early 1980s thanks to prison education opportunities. According to Jon Marc Taylor, an ex-convict-turned-academic and award-winning writer, unemployment was the biggest factor driving up recidivism rates. Yet three out of four inmates who received some type of higher education were able to find sustainable employment within the critical first three years after release.

Although this evidence indicates that the program was successful, the effectiveness of the Pell Grants for Prisoners has been disputed, particularly by conservative lawmakers, who worked throughout the 1970s and 1980s to restrict prisoners’ access to the funding for higher education. In 1982, Rep. George Whitehurst (R-Va.), for example, sought to place a $6 million cap on financial aid for inmates, an offer rejected by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. President Ronald Reagan cut federal spending on higher education by 25%, cuts that included Pell Grant spending, and made students and parents more responsible for funding college costs. But even with funding cuts, the Pell Grants remained and inmates continued to benefit.

That changed in the 1990s. A new era of bipartisan support for “tough on crime” legislation by small governments made federal Pell grants for prisoners a very vulnerable political target. Politicians have argued that inmates receiving Pell Grants are effectively diverting financial aid from deserving students who have not committed crimes – an argument that has garnered widespread support among working-class and middle-class families who, thanks to Reagan-era budget cuts, found that tuition was rising. hard.

Voters began to view prison education as a scholarship to commit a crime. In a “60 Minutes television segment titled ‘Prison U’, Massachusetts Governor William Weld (R) expressed outrage that, as he said, ‘you sell drugs, you murder someone, you rape someone ‘one, you go to jail and you get a free education.” He continued: “You hear kids say now, ‘Well, you know, if I can’t do it, you know, I could be wrong and I’ll go to jail and get a free education. ”

In another example, NBC’s “Dateline” published a special report in 1994 titled “Society’s Debt?” which pitted deserving students who were denied Pell scholarships against “lucky” detained students who received them. A student working full time expressed frustration with the seemingly easy life of inmates as he and students like him had to juggle work and study. “The prisoners,” he said, “they have their cable TV, they have their weight rooms. What do I have? I have school, I have a job, and I have a bed that I see four to five hours a night, and that’s it.

On another occasion, while addressing the Senate, Sen. Jesse Helms (RN.C.) read a letter from a father who explained how he was struggling to pay three college tuitions. When he discovered that the inmates were receiving financial assistance that his family had refused, he suggested that he should arm his children and send them off to commit crimes since their post-secondary education in prison would be free.

The 1994 Crime Bill reflected this public dissatisfaction with the eligibility of inmates for Pell Grant. This consequential legislation not only increased the prison population, but also prevented inmates from receiving financial aid for higher education. In the last year of Pell Grant eligibility in prisons, inmates received $56 million in funding of the $9.3 billion in federal aid for higher education. In the three years since the Crime Bill was passed, only eight higher education programs in prison remained in place.

But access to financial aid for all students did not improve after this change in legislation. From 1990 to 2010, state subsidies for higher education fell by 26%. During this 20-year period, institutions compensated for the decrease in funding by roughly doubling the tuition and fees that students had to pay. Even with small increases in Pell Grant funding during the 2000s, the drastic increase in higher education costs has diminished the value of financial aid.

In response to the crisis in higher education that this imbalance has caused, President Biden – who as a senator sponsored the 1994 crime bill – has proposed doubling Pell Grant’s budget and extending grants to inmates once again.

As history shows, it is easy to negatively influence public opinion about prison Pell grants when access to higher education seems out of reach for many Americans. Yet the removal of the Pell Grants for Prisoners did not provide more financial assistance to students who were not behind bars. Rather, it simply meant more spending in prison due to a higher recidivism rate. Instead, increasing access at all levels — including for those who are incarcerated — will help make college more accessible to working-class Americans.