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Kemerer ’15: Restore the Pell Grant

At both an institutional and a personal level, current and formerly incarcerated people are consistently dismissed when they ask for help — for some people, it seems fair that they deal with the consequences of their actions on their own. But what about consequences that go above and beyond what we consider to be just punishment? What if some people in some groups must always face these consequences while members of others are seldom punished for the same actions?

Injustice for incarcerated people is often discussed in terms of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-based offenses, but the consequences of a prison sentence extend far beyond the length of the sentence itself. Following release from prison, former inmates find that employers will not hire them, colleges and technical schools will not admit them and many public agencies will refuse to assist them. Faced with no chance at a new life, many of these inmates return to crime — and back to prison.

Decades of research have demonstrated that this phenomenon is preventable. Studies have shown that education in prison — especially higher education — can reduce recidivism rates among prisoners and improve their employment prospects upon release. Some states have been able to fund college programs for inmates. But the federal government must restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students for educational programs to be adequately funded nationwide.

Pell Grants originated with the late Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who hoped the grants would “equalize educational opportunity across income classes,” calling it a “G.I. Bill for everybody” that would provide the support necessary for capable poor students to get the same level of education provided to wealthier students. The grant functioned, and continues to function, as an unofficial entitlement program: Anyone below a set level of income qualifies for a grant, and the grants have always been fully funded no matter how many students receive them. Up until 20 years ago, the program included incarcerated students.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided $9.7 billion for new prison construction and made incarcerated students ineligible for Pell Grants no matter their income level. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a chief proponent of the bill, said that Pell Grants for incarcerated students were “not fair to the millions of parents who work and pay taxes and then must scrape and save and often borrow to finance their children’s education,” and frequently mentioned children of police officers who would be unable to receive Pell Grants because of prisoners. But after the passage of the bill, non-incarcerated students did not receive any additional financial aid — rather, the bill simply cut the 0.6 percent of Pell Grant funding that went to inmates. Senator Pell himself countered Hutchison’s account, saying, “The child of a police officer would not be denied a grant in favor of a prisoner. If both are eligible, both would receive grants.” With no additional education funds and increased spending on prisons, cutting inmates out of the program was clearly neither about better education for non-incarcerated students, nor about saving money. Instead, diatribes on the Senate floor demonstrated that it had much more to do with punishing prisoners and escalating the War on Drugs.

The elimination of Pell Grants devastated the correctional education system. Within three years of the bill’s passing, the number of college programs in prison had dropped from 350 to eight. Without Pell Grants, state corrections departments have been forced to rely on nonprofits, inmate self-funding and state grants for college programs, none of which have been consistent enough for most colleges to justify the cost of operating programs in prison.

Reduced access to correctional education comes in spite of strong evidence that education programs in prison reduce recidivism, increase employment and lower overall costs for corrections departments. A recent meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation  think tank found that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who do not participate in such programs. Additionally, the odds of obtaining employment were 13 percent higher for inmates who participated in education programs versus those who had not.

The analysis estimated that savings from lower incarceration rates due to lower recidivism alone would average out to between $8,700 and $9,700 per inmate educated. Even if every prisoner educated received the maximum Pell Grant of $5,730, states would still save $3,970 per prisoner educated. Given that the average Pell Grant given to inmates was only 57 percent of the maximum available grant in their last year of eligibility in 1994, the savings from reduced recidivism alone would likely be even higher than that. These numbers do not even take into account reduced spending on public assistance for inmate families, higher future tax payments from employed former inmates and lower costs for police, courts and victims of crime.

Correctional education is clearly a sound financial investment. But aside from cost, it is especially important to consider the people who lose the opportunity to improve themselves and the lives of their families without Pell Grant support. With black and Latino men disproportionately arrested, convicted and incarcerated and with half of inmates having dependent children, it is too often marginalized people and their families who find themselves without a second chance. For inmates who want to hold themselves accountable and move on from past mistakes, the Pell Grant provides an opportunity at a new life.


Adam Kemerer ’15 can be reached at He invites you to attend the Restore the Pell Grant Symposium on Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. to discuss the possibility of Pell Grant restoration with formerly incarcerated students and other experts in the field.  

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