- A bipartisan bill that would end a nearly 25-year-old ban on prisoners' access to Pell Grants has drawn broad support from higher education, social service and prison system groups. In introducing the legislation, called the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, cited studies that indicate higher education can reduce recidivism and reduce incarceration costs.
- Several higher ed groups have signaled their support for the ending the ban, including the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities and the American Association for Community Colleges, which together represent more than 1,000 two-year and religious institutions.
- Higher education policy groups have also backed the measure, including the Education Trust and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). "Prison-based higher education programs can transform students' lives and hold the unique potential to close racial- and income-based gaps in educational attainment," Julie Ajinkya, IHEP's vice president of applied research, said in a statement.
The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act has gained support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as Congress prepares to rewrite the Higher Education Act (HEA).
Recently, Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and the chair of the Senate's education committee, said he was considering expanding Pell Grants as part of the rewrite of the HEA, while his Democratic counterpart in the House, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, has been pushing to end the ban for several years.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has signaled some interest in providing more educational opportunities to prisoners. On Monday, for instance, the U.S. Education Department held an event to hear from local and state officials about some educational initiatives for prisoners that have shown promise, Politico reported.
The department has also continued a pilot program — initially started under the Obama administration in 2015 — that allows up to 12,000 prisoners to receive Pell Grants. However, the Ed Department has not indicated when the pilot program will end, leaving some 65 colleges participating in the pilot uncertain about the programs' futures.
Since the pilot's rollout, more than 600 incarcerated adults have earned a credential.
Expanding the program could further help those who complete programs, as well as their local communities, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Researchers with the group estimate that lifting the Pell ban could help roughly 463,000 individuals reduce their chances of recidivism and boost their job prospects. The latter could have major implications for those who are formerly incarcerated, as their unemployment rate is above 27%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Andrea Cantora, director of the University of Baltimore’s Second Chance College Program, which has participated in the pilot, said that along with allowing inmates to obtain degrees, it significantly boosted their self-image, motivation, confidence and improved their relationships with their families.
However, the General Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a March report that the Ed Department hasn't yet evaluated the pilot, though the agency has said it is collecting data and will issue its findings.
The GAO also noted participating colleges have run into several challenges with the programs. For instance, some students weren't eligible because they had defaulted on previous student loan debt or they had trouble obtaining verifying documents. And at one pilot site in Michigan, NPR reported, the college could only fill half of its slots because many students weren't registered for the selective service, which is a FAFSA requirement.