Pell Grants for prisoners: Good for them, and for everyone else



The U.S. Department of Education’s announcement last week of a pilot program that will allow Pell Grant eligibility for some incarcerated students signaled a welcome change in the way education is viewed in correctional facilities across the nation. The step was a tangible way to break the cycle of crime and incarceration that too often prevails in impoverished families and communities.

The program also creates the potential for a change in public policy that can shape both the fiscal return on efforts to reduce recidivism and the reclamation of human potential through the successful re-entry of offenders into society.

The issue of Pell Grants for correctional students generates an emotionally charged discussion. Views tend to be polarized and personal. Proponents point to persuasive data showing that correctional education is both good public policy and cost-effective. A 2013 analysis by the RAND Corporation of the literature of correctional education determined that involvement in such programs during incarceration reduces recidivism by 43 percent. Considering that the annual cost of incarceration is about $30,000 per inmate, programs that have such a significant impact on recidivism have a fiscally valid return on investment.

Opponents of Pell Grants for incarcerated students usually voice two major objections. First, federal Title IV financial-aid funds are designated for students who demonstrate financial need, and inmates who get Pell funds are using up limited grant money. This argument, however, ignores the reality of how the grants are administered.

Pell funding is determined by an index that reflects a student’s financial need. So a grant awarded to an incarcerated student will not affect the award made to a campus student, because it is based on the financial status of the campus student (and of parents, in the case of a dependent student). Incarcerated students generally are from socioeconomic conditions that, in combination with incarceration, qualify them for Pell funds, and most offenders will be eligible the moment they leave the correctional institution, as a result of their economic condition. So Pell funding and educational programming while they are in prison simply ensures that they acquire the skills and knowledge they need to increase their chances for success at release.

The second objection is based on the notion that inmates are in prison to be punished. To be sure, incarceration has a punitive aspect, as evidenced by the isolation from society and family. But modern theories of corrections view incarceration as a condition that also encompasses treatment for psychological, addiction-related, and educational factors, all of which may contribute to criminal behavior. Most correctional officials will attest to the fact that strong educational programs for inmates are important for safe correctional facilities and are strong indicators of successful re-entry. If one can get past the emotion of the argument for punishment, then the return on investment of correctional education really does buffer the objection.

Considering these arguments, the plan announced by the Education Department, together with the Justice Department, strikes me as a particularly tempered and discerning response. It will serve a limited number of correctional sites, where the program will be monitored and evaluated. A sound return on investment should be demonstrated by the institutions that are selected and by the impact that the programs have on individuals, recidivism, and employment. Metrics for evaluation of these results are being developed, and the sites selected will need to produce evidence of success for further funding and reform in correctional education.

It is notable that this project will reinvigorate the impact of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (which was undermined by the 1994 crime bill) on the at-risk student population in correctional facilities by once again placing educational opportunity and human potential over punishment.

As director of the longest continuously operating postsecondary correctional education in the nation, I have seen thousands of lives changed by the programs that my institution, Ashland University, has offered in correctional institutions. The liberal-arts tradition of the American university purports to help students understand their world, their place within it, and the interconnectedness of the two. If this is indeed possible at a university, I can think of no better place in which to engage students and transform lives than the correctional system.

Author Bio: John J. Dowdell is director of the Gill Center for Business Economic Education at Ashland University and an editor of the Journal of Correctional Education.