Pell Grants For Prisoners: New Government Program Aims To Reduce Recidivism

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on September 9, 2015 at 11:42 am
Pell Grants For Prisoners: New Government Program Aims To Reduce Recidivism

Criminal justice reform has always been a cornerstone of President Obama’s agenda. And just last month, he made his mark on financial aid by making Pell grants eligible to some prisoners under a new pilot program.

Inmates of both federal and state prions have been banned from receiving Pell grants since April 1994, when then President Bill Clinton and a Democrat House signed the provision into law. The argument then was that it wasn’t fair to give prisoners money when law abiding citizens couldn’t afford to go to college.

Under President Obama’s pilot, dubbed the Second Chance Pell pilot Program, incarcerated individuals who otherwise meet Title IV eligibility requirements and are eligible for a release, particularly within the next five years, will be able to access Pell Grants. The goal of the program, according to the White House, is to increase prisoners’ access to postsecondary education and training so that they can successfully transition out of prison and back into the classroom or workforce. Pell Grants can only be used to pay for tuition, fees, books and other supplies needed for the school’s program. Prisoners are not eligible for any other Federal student aid.

Reducing recidivism with education

According to the Obama Administration, offering prisoners access to Pell Grants to fund some of their schooling will help reduce recidivism, which in turn will lower the high costs associated with incarceration in the U.S. There are currently more than 1.5 million prisoners in the U.S., and the nation leads the world in terms of incarceration rates. What’s more, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when announcing the pilot program that the money currently spent on prison could provide universal pre-K for every 3 and 4 year-old in the country – or it could double the salary of every high school teacher in the U.S.

There’s no question that the country’s jail system is broken. According to the White House, the U.S. spends $80 billion a year incarcerating criminals. And because of tough-on-crime laws dating back to the 1980s, nonviolent offenders make up a big portion of the prison population.

The White House cited studies that have shown that a high quality correctional education can reduce re-incarceration rates. The White house pointed to a 2013 RAND Corp. report that showed that people who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to jail within three years than those that didn’t receive an in-jail education or training. RAND determined that for every dollar spent on education programs in jail, four to five dollars are saved on three year re-incarceration costs.

“It is under-education that turns many toward crime in the first place and to return to it when released,” says Robert A. Ferguson, the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University. “That is not all. The discipline in education is a major resource in dealing with the addiction problems rampant in prison culture. Again and again, education is the answer.”

Under the pilot program, students will only be able to enroll in programs that prepare them for jobs that are in high demand – and ones they aren’t legally barred from entering. The White House expects the experiment to last four or five years.

Missing parts – and unchanging criticism

Absent from the Obama administration’s announcement, however, is what it will cost, how many inmates it will cover and whether or not it will mean fewer Pell Grants for low-income families outside of prison. Critics of the program have the same issues with giving prisoners Pell Grants that they did some twenty years ago: Ordinary citizens are struggling to pay for college now more than ever, so why should prisoners get assistance before them?

The White House undoubtedly faces a fight with politicians across the aisle, but it’s not the first time an attempt to provide education to inmates has been confronted with pushback from critics. Last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan in which the state would pay for college classes for inmates. Six weeks after making the announcement, Cuomo backpedaled, saying the idea was so politically controversial that he abandoned it.

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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