Since 1994 incarcerated people were barred from receiving Pell Grants for college. That’s changing.
More than 700,000 incarcerated individuals leave federal and state prisons annually and return to their local communities where they will have to compete for jobs. In today’s world, having a college education is necessary to compete for many jobs; two-thirds of job postings require some level of college education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 174 occupations with a typical entry level education requirement of a bachelor’s degree, and it projects that employment in these occupations will grow by 10 percent over the next decade. The stakes for returning citizens are higher than they are for others; being able to land a job can mean the difference between successfully transitioning back into a community and returning to prison.
For incarcerated students, a key obstacle to obtaining a college education is cost. Prior to 1994, those who were incarcerated were eligible to receive Pell Grants to help cover the costs of participating in these programs. The 1994 amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for students incarcerated in federal and state prisons. This led to a dramatic reduction in the number of inmates participating in college programs and a reduction in the number of programs being offered. In terms of the number of states that offered college courses, an analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data showed that 59 percent of states offered college programs in prison in 1990; following the 1994 amendment to the HEA, this dropped to 31 percent of states in 1995.
Congressional leaders have struck a deal to reinstate Pell grants for incarcerated students more than a quarter century after banning the aid for prison education programs, with the President expected to sign the bill, which includes nearly $900 billion in coronavirus spending, today.
Why this matters
Many individuals incarcerated in U.S. prisons are disadvantaged in terms of low educational attainment, which, when they get released, makes it challenging for them to find employment that provides a living wage. Thirty percent of individuals incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons lack a high-school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) equivalency. In addition, one-third of U.S. incarcerated adults performed at low levels of literacy and about one-half of them had low levels of numeracy skills compared with the general U.S. population.
Interest in education programs among incarcerated adults is high, with 42 percent having completed some level of education during their current prison term (particularly GED completion). Yet only one out of five (approximately 21 percent) were currently studying for a formal degree or credential, and of those not currently enrolled in an educational program, 79 percent reported an interest in doing so. Literacy and numeracy skills are not often used in the prison jobs available to incarcerated individuals. Although 61 percent reported having a prison job, many never had the opportunity to use their literacy or numeracy skills in that job. For example, 47 percent of incarcerated adults with prison jobs reported never reading directions or instructions as part of their current prison job, and 82 percent reported never using or calculating fractions, decimals, or percentages. Furthermore, only 10 percent reported using a computer in their prison job assignments.
Correctional Education and PSE Programs, Including College Coursework, Are Effective in Reducing Recidivism
The prison population is primed for correctional education programs that can help them when they are released, but the real question is whether such programs, when available, actually work—are they effective in reducing the rampant recidivism that has resulted in so many ex-offenders ending up back in prison? In 2013, RAND published the results of a comprehensive literature review of 30 years of studies of correctional education programs and a meta-analysis to assess what is known about how effective correctional education programs are in helping to reduce recidivism for incarcerated adults in state prisons. The results indicated that individuals who participated in a correctional education program while incarcerated (e.g., whether adult basic education [ABE], GED preparation, PSE or college education, or vocational training; i.e., career and technical education [CTE]) had 43-percent lower odds of recidivating than individuals who did not.
Postsecondary education in prison as a strategy to reduce recidivism is not a new idea. Corrections and education professionals have been successfully putting these programs to the test for decades. (It also stands to reason that such programs may provide employers with a larger pool of skilled workers to hire.) Here are a few programs across the country whose outcomes speak to the transformative power of postsecondary education in prison:
- Project Rebound supports students in the California State University system and helps them to earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees: “In California, more than half of the people released from prison wind up behind bars again. But just 3 percent of Project Rebound students return to prison, according to 2010 figures. Graduation rates for Project Rebound students are high, too; more than 90 percent eventually graduate, while the university’s overall graduation rate is closer to 50 percent.”
- Since its inception in 2013, Westville Education Initiative at Holy Cross College has conferred 34 associate’s degrees. As of November 2017, no graduates had recidivated.
- In 2013, the Bard Prison Initiative reported a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent among its alumni.
- Over 21 years, Hudson Link has awarded 700 degrees in collaboration with eight colleges and five prisons. The organization reports a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.
- Since 2007, Tulsa Community College has awarded approximately 500 associate’s degrees and certificates to incarcerated students. These students have recidivated at a rate of only 5 percent.
- Chemeketa Community College has operated a college program in prison since 2007. The recidivism rate among its 256 graduates is just 6 percent. In 2018, 42 students graduated with a cumulative GPA of 3.8.
- An eight-year recidivism study found that of 883 people who received college degrees in Texas prisons, 27.2 percent of associate’s degree holders and 7.8 percent of bachelor’s degree holders had recidivated, as compared to 43 percent of people who did not participate in postsecondary education programming.
Correctional Education is Cost Effective
The RAND study also showed that correctional education programs are highly cost-effective. Focusing on the outcome of recidivism, they used a hypothetical pool of 100 inmates, the direct costs of correctional education programs and of incarceration itself, and a three-year reincarceration rate to assess cost-effectiveness. The study estimated that the direct costs of providing education to the hypothetical pool of 100 inmates ranged from $140,000 to $174,400 (or $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate). The three-year reincarceration costs for those who did not receive correctional education were estimated to be between $2.94 million and $3.25 million, compared with $2.07 million and $2.28 million for those who did. It is estimated that every dollar invested in prison education programs saves taxpayers, on average, between $4 and $5 in three-year reincarceration costs. This is a conservative estimate in that it compares only the direct costs of correctional education programs with the direct costs of incarceration.
There is a growing consensus about the need to address the multifaceted problem of mass incarceration across the country. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle are finding common ground in both acknowledging the problem and in trying to address it through the various levers available to them at the front end of the criminal justice system (e.g., sentencing reform) and at the back end (e.g., providing more services to returning citizens).
With solid evidence showing that correctional education programs are effective—and cost-effective—at improving employment outcomes for participants and at helping to keep formerly incarcerated individuals from returning to prison, education is another lever that policymakers can use to help reduce recidivism rates.
The benefit to reinstating Pell Grants to prisoners is threefold:
- Education reduces recidivism. Therefore, we reduce the financial burden on taxpayers. While education in prison does cost money, it reduces spending overall, which is a win for taxpayers.
- Education increases production. Simply put, a college education will likely result in a higher-wage career, and the resulting contribution to society will also benefit the community.
- Reduced crime and victimization. Many times a prisoner recidivates by committing a new crime, and victimizing someone in the process. Reduced recidivism means reduced crime, reduced victimization, and safer communities.
We hope that higher education leaders, public safety agencies, and community organizations will band together to swiftly implement high quality educational opportunities for incarcerated people.
Emily DeRuy, “From Convict to College Student,” The Atlantic, August 26, 2016.
Alesha Seroczynski, director, Westville Education Initiative, Holy Cross College of Notre Dame, e-mail correspondence with John Bae, program associate, Vera Institute of Justice, January 22, 2018.
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