Obama Administration Proposes Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

Posted By Eliana Osborn on June 1, 2015 at 9:18 am
Obama Administration Proposes Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

A recent Obama administration proposal would allow prison inmates to receive federal Pell Grant funding for higher education.  Such aid has been banned since 1994, including for those in the state and federal prison systems.  The potential policy shift would not affect the prohibition on student loans for prisoners.

In late 2014, Department of Education officials made clear that juveniles are not included under the ban on student aid currently in place. Youth in juvenile justice facilities can receive aid if they meet other requirements, while adults serving time in local jails are under different guidelines.

The 2013 year-end state and federal prison population in the United States was more than 1.5 million, and the country has an incarceration rate of 707 per 100,000 people, the highest in the world.  When such a large number of citizens are involved, addressing the educational future of imprisoned individuals is a wise move.  However, the road to reinstating Pell Grants for prisoners has been a long one, with advocates pushing the issue even as private colleges create their own programs to provide services.  Such efforts are promising but limited.

To receive a Pell Grant, students must hold a high school diploma or GED, something only 40% of prison inmates currently do.  As legislators and experts debate policies to reduce prison populations, the benefits of shifting Pell guidelines are gaining steam, and groups as diverse as Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Maryland Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards are working to change current legislation.  President Obama’s Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act recently introduced to Congress would restore Pell Grant eligibility to those in prison, shrinking overall law enforcement costs in the long term – as well as reducing recidivism and improving job prospects for inmates.

Those opposed to changing the Pell Grant policy include many conservatives, who speak of limited higher education funds going to prisoners rather than other qualified students in need. The most likely change in the law, however, will start small, with only a few colleges involved or only students close to earning a degree eligible.  No matter what happens during the current congressional term, though, the issue of inmate rehabilitation is one that isn’t going away.  Virginia Representative Bobby Scott has stated the choice clearly: money will be spent no matter what, either on prison or education. Funding higher education through expanded Pell Grant availability will be just one small part of changing the status quo.

Image: The White House

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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