The Obama administration is looking to reintroduce federal Pell grants for adult prisoner education. The policy has been banned for 20 years, but now the Education and Justice departments are set to run a pilot program to see if reversing the ban will have a positive impact on prison education.
The US prison population has increased by almost 50% since the ban of Pell grants 20 years ago. Today, about 1.6 million people are behind bars in the US. The goal of this experimental, limited program is to evaluate the role of education in reducing recidivism and improving a prisoner's reintegration and success post-release.
The 1994 Pell grant ban by the Democratic-led Congress rested on the case that it was unfair to have prisoners claim federal financial aid when dollars were scarce. The ban's opponents argued that prison education reduces criminal behavior relapse.
The limited-time experimental program called "Second Chance Pell Pilot Program" is for inmates that are eligible for release within five years. These inmates will get a chance to complete an associate or bachelor's degree during that time.
"America is a nation of second chances," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are – it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers," Duncan added.
The pilot program won't deprive the eight million Pell grant-eligible students who are expecting to get the grant in 2016. However, the Kids before Cons Act wants to prevent the implementation of the Pell Grants for prisoners initiative.
Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, said the president is acting "without regard for the law." Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says the administration doesn't have the authority to implement the program without Congressional approval.
Although the Pell grant ban cannot be lifted, the Obama administration will use its authority provided through the Higher Education Act to implement the pilot. This law allows for limited "experimental sites" that make use of federal financial aid waivers, Politico points out.
The Consumerist states that although the project is not an actual reversal of the 1994 Pell grant ban, it could eventually lead to it.
Lois Davis, senior policy researcher at RAND, says education for prisoners gives them a second chance at life:
"This population is one with low education attainment. About 40 percent of [prisoners] lack a high school education. Sixteen percent of state prisoners have a high school diploma. Education can have a huge effect in really helping them to gain the skills they need and prepare them to be employed."
According to the Washington Post the spending blueprint for Pell grants for 2015-2016 is about $29 billion. For 2016, eligible students will receive a maximum of $5,775.