While the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped expand college in-prison programs throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 largely erased any trace of potential for those incarcerated to receive a degree in higher education.
However, July 1 will mark an overwhelmingly more positive outlook for higher education behind bars. Biden’s FAFSA Simplification Act will open Pell Grant eligibility for more than 760,000 students. This legislation builds on Congress’ 2020 decision to lift the 1994 ban, which opened about 200 Pell-eligible college programs in 48 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Now, an additional 30,000 imprisoned students will receive some $130 million in financial aid per year.
“For America to be a country of second chances, we must uphold education’s promise of a better life for people who’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, according to ABC News.
A degree in higher education represents so much more to prisoners—and the health of a country—than just a feel-good story. Here are several reasons expanding financial aid to the incarcerated boosts positive behavior and doesn’t break the bank.
- Saves taxpayers money. Every dollar spent on prison-based education yields more than $4 in taxpayer savings from reduced incarceration costs, according to AP News.
- Lessens recidivism rates: Prisoners who enroll in postsecondary education programs are 48% less likely to be reincarcerated than those who do not, according to the Journal of Experimental Criminology.
“Once you start a higher education program in a prison, the students in that program become scholars. They begin behaving differently. They see a future for themselves that they’ve never imagined before. It changes things,” said Todd Butler, the dean of arts and sciences at Jackson College in Michigan, according to The Florida Phoenix. “We watch folks slowly become believers in the system.”
3. Doesn’t dent federal funding. The $130 million boost in financial aid packages for incarcerated students under the FAFSA Simplification Act would represent less than a 1% increase to the $26 billion total the government spends on Pell Grants, according to AP News.
4. Financial aid spending on prisoners is a small fraction compared to yearly living expenses: The Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State for students at Folsom State Prison spends about $20,000 per student. However, California spends $106,000 per year on each of its prisoners. Ultimately, providing prisoners the opportunity to escape prison recidivism and contribute to the U.S. economy costs less than 20% than it does to keep them fed and housed yearly.