By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Pell grants expanding to benefit students in unlikely places
The Department of Education unveiled a small-scale initiative to make Pell grants available to inmates, slightly reversing a decades long ban. - photo by Omar Etman
The Pell program, which awards grants mostly to undergraduate students receiving conventional college educations, is expanding to benefit non-traditional students in unlikely places.

Obama administration officials unveiled an initiative that would provide Pell grants to a limited number of state and federal prisoners the first time inmates could receive Pell grants since Congress excluded them from the program in 1994, The Washington Post reported.

The Pell program was established in 1972 to provide small grants to undergraduate students, the amount received dependent on financial need and other factors and, unlike a loan, grants do not have to be repaid. In 1993 the year before Pell grants became unavailable to inmates 3.3 million students received Pell grants and fewer than 1 percent were inmates, according to the Post.

Studies have proven that correctional education is beneficial for inmates. One review, from 1995, found that education in prison resulted in fewer disciplinary infractions and higher rates of post-release employment.

Another, the 2001 Three State Recidivism Study, conducted by the Department of Education, looked at the effect of correctional education on recidivism in the late 1990s. The findings were dramatic, the Marshall Project reported. Those who had participated in education programs were 29 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who hadnt. The RAND study, published in 2013, found prisoners to be 43 percent less likely to return.

Critics question the rationale of funneling funding to criminals and away from lawful citizens. When the measure to block prisoners from receiving Pell grants was up for debate in 1994, one representative commented, Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policemans child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check.

Todays opponents are also frustrated the administration enacted the change without congressional approval.

How we ensure the long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program needs to be a national conversation," said House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., in a written statement. "Unfortunately, the administration has chosen once again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law.

The Obama administration bypassed Congress by categorizing the pilot program under the auspices of the experimental sites initiative, which will allow the Department of Education to waive certain rules that govern financial aid, Inside Higher Ed explained.

Prison education advocates, who have gained momentum in recent years, have celebrated this first step. This test run of Pell grants for prisoners, if successful, could make it easier to pass a comprehensive prison education bill in Congress in the future.

For Dallas Pell, daughter of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, for whom the program is named, prison education is an emotional issue.

When people get out of prison, the overwhelming majority of people who have gotten education in prison, theyre so profoundly changed, she told the Post. They go into their communities. They go into social work. Its in everybodys best interest to have people come out [of prison] that are rehabilitated and feel good about themselves.
Sign up for our E-Newsletters