Improving Prison Education Will Require Much More Than Lifting the Ban on Pell

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The U.S. Department of Education recently announced it was inviting more institutions to participate in the Second Chance Pell experiment, a program first piloted during the Obama administration that allows a select number of approved colleges and universities to support incarcerated learners through Pell Grant funds. The change would allow as many as 200 two- and four-year colleges and universities to offer their prison-education programs through the experiment. The change comes after Congress finally lifted its prohibition of incarcerated individuals receiving the Pell Grant late last year, clearing the way for those in prison to access federal aid that has long served as a lifeline for millions of students.

These are long overdue steps forward in widening access to some of our most eager but underserved learners. But as monumental as the changes are, they are only pieces of a much larger puzzle for expanding educational opportunities in prisons. To fully take advantage of the end of the ban on Pell, we must first help incarcerated learners clear the many other educational roadblocks in their way. As it stands, far too many incarcerated people are still not eligible for Pell. 

The majority of incarcerated adults want to earn a college degree or certificate, but research shows about 40% of Pennsylvania incarcerated individuals are not eligible for Pell because they have yet to complete high school. About 80% of people in state prisons have not earned a high school diploma or equivalency, with some still needing to learn to read

recent study paints an even bleaker picture of how many incarcerated people can actually benefit from the Pell grant. Researchers found that more than 70% of the prison population in Pennsylvania would be ineligible for Pell because they failed to meet the many other federal eligibility requirements -- including not registering for selective service, being in default on a student loan, and not having a high school diploma or equivalency. 

The benefits of prison education are clear and well-documented. According to a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, individuals who do not complete high school are rearrested at the highest rate— about 60%— of any group. A 2016 report from the RAND Corporation found that incarcerated individuals who participate in any type of educational program are 43% less likely to return to prison. And yet, the vast majority of incarcerated learners receive very little support when pursuing an education. Following the Pell ban 26 years ago, the 300 postsecondary education programs offered in prisons slowly dwindled to about a dozen. Today, just six percent of incarcerated individuals in the United States have access to college-level courses. Reform is desperately needed. 

The Biden Administration and lawmakers can build upon Congress’ recent decision to repeal the Pell ban by confronting the fundamental issues that prevent millions from obtaining an education. First, President Biden should guide states to follow the federal government in expanding Pell grant access. Second, policymakers and state leaders must recognize that incarcerated people are people and, like all students everywhere, deserve educational investment in the form of mentorship, coaching, and tutoring. A recent study estimated that 41% of people in prison have a diagnosed learning disability, a far greater proportion than what is found among the general population. They need far more support than just financial aid.

Third, the Biden Administration and state leaders must invest in technology and infrastructure to efficiently expand access to education in prisons, allowing for more personalized and competency-based learning opportunities that will help incarcerated people quickly advance toward Pell eligibility. While providing prison education at scale may have been prohibitively challenging in decades past, recent advances in technology eliminate many excuses today. The educational conditions at most prisons are comparable to a one-room schoolhouse, a situation that has only grown more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can and must do better.

It’s time to think beyond just expanding the size and scope of the Pell Grant and focus our efforts just as strongly on providing quality educational programming that will help incarcerated learners earn their high school diploma or equivalency. We must ensure incarcerated individuals have access to the kinds of wraparound services needed to help them put their education to good use after prison. We need to ensure we are creating real pathways to successful lives post-incarceration.

Only then can we turn our prisons from places of warehousing to places of rehabilitation. 

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