Opinion | Why Pell Grants Can Help Fight the Pandemic

Encouragingly, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation this year that includes full restoration of Pell Grants for all incarcerated students. In the last few months of 2020, as we all do our part to support sound policies that strengthen our communities, Congress can do its share by getting full Pell restoration over the finish line and ending this ban once and for all.

Research has shown that Pell Grants pay off in both the short and long term. In the short term, we have found that access to post-secondary education in our correctional facilities incentivizes incarcerated students to comply with rules so they can continue attending classes. The resulting decrease in violence not only prevents harm to our incarcerated populations, but reduces unnecessary medical, corrections and law enforcement spending at a time when our budgets are being stretched to their breaking points.

Taking a longer view, access to post-secondary education reduces recidivism and creates opportunity. Incarcerated individuals are 48 percent less likely to recidivate if they’ve had access to college courses prior to release. Education is also the primary means of upward mobility in our society. Research shows that removing the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison would increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent on average. These benefits are exponential, as the children of incarcerated students are themselves more likely to pursue their own post-secondary degree or certificate. All of these benefits help reduce poverty and shatter cycles of involvement in the criminal justice system that ensnares many communities.

We’re not alone in supporting broad access to post-secondary education for students in correctional facilities. In fact, lifting the ban enjoys broad, bipartisan support – including from elected officials, business leaders, law enforcement personnel and voters across different demographic groups.

Education leaders also agree. In Tennessee and Washington, we work with more than a dozen colleges to provide post-secondary education. Several of the colleges in our states are doing so through the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. This pilot program has provided higher education for nearly 17,000 students in prison who have earned over 4,500 bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, post-secondary diplomas and certificates.

In Washington, Walla Walla Community College will deliver applied bachelor’s degree programs at the Washington State Penitentiary and the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center with Second Chance Pell beginning this winter. Thanks to private funding, the community college started delivering associate of art programs at the penitentiary in 2008 and at the corrections center in 2009; they soon had more than 300 students working toward degrees. These two sites graduated hundreds of students and now have a group of students eager to continue their education journey.

In Tennessee, more than 240 incarcerated students are currently pursuing certificates and degrees, thanks to the Department of Correction’s partnerships with area colleges and universities. Since 2005, private funding has allowed for the enrollment of more than 150 students into a program through Lipscomb University that brings free-world students into our facilities to study side-by-side with those who are incarcerated. Lipscomb has conferred 20 associate degrees and 10 bachelor’s degrees through this collaboration. Partnerships via the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative with Nashville State Community College, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology and Dyersburg State Community College have also provided life-changing opportunities for the men and women in our custody.

Post-secondary education in prison is a proven strategy that improves safety, reduces recidivism and saves money. We can say this because we have seen it. The House acknowledged the importance of education for all when it passed legislation lifting the ban earlier this year. Now we need Congress to finish the job, so that we and corrections officials across the country can better navigate the current environment, including the pandemic, and prepare for a stronger future.


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