A small-scale program that will give prisoners Pell Grants to pursue college degrees represents a symbolic step toward expanding access to higher education. But only a fraction of the inmates who could benefit will receive financial aid, experts say.
The 1994 federal crime bill cut inmates off from Pell Grants, leaving private organizations as the only funding sources. The number of programs dropped from around 350 to eight, says professor Baz Dreisinger, the academic director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“It means a great deal—it’s not everything, but it paves the way for a re-emergence of the kind of flourishing we saw in this type of education in the past,” Dreisinger says, adding that large-scale programs and more innovations could result.
The new initiative, launched in July by the U.S. Department of Education, will study whether college coursework increases prisoners’ chances of getting better jobs and staying out of trouble after being released. That’s already been proven by research, such as a Rand Corporation report from 2013, says Amy Roza, director of Goucher College’s Prison Education Partnership in Maryland.
“Students incarcerated in our prisons are overwhelmingly from communities that have been excluded from quality education and higher education,” Roza says. “There’s incredible potential in those students.”
College-in-prison costs less than $5,000 per student per year; incarcerating a prisoner in Maryland costs almost $40,000 a year, Roza says.
“Things like recidivism and increased lifetime earnings are really important,” she says. “But there’s also increased benefits for the college community and the broader community.”
The Department of Education hasn’t specified how much money will be provided. Institutions have until Sept. 30 to apply for the funds, which will generally go to prisoners set to be released in five years or less.
Robert Scott, director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, says he hopes schools will be inspired to start prison programs in areas of the country, such as Florida, where none exist—or perhaps states will offer their own funding, as New York and California have done.
“If people are lulled into thinking this program is the end of it, that would be a misreading,” Scott says. “If they understand it as a starting point for a wider discussion and new initiatives, that would be more helpful.”