The federal government is about to test whether a 20-year ban on financing college for prisoners should be lifted, with officials using an inmate education program in Jessup, Md., as the backdrop Friday to announce the experiment.
A Democratic-led Congress banned Pell grants for prisoners in 1994 after a debate in which lawmakers said it was unfair for those who are incarcerated to claim a share of federal financial aid dollars that are in limited supply. Opponents of the ban said, then and afterward, that it was a short-sighted move because investing in education for those behind bars would reduce the likelihood that they would commit more crimes after their release.
Goucher College, a private liberal arts school outside Baltimore, and others around the country have kept some inmate education programs alive in the years since the federal ban. The Washington Post examined Goucher’s program inside the Jessup state prison in 2013.
There is no sign that the Republican-controlled Congress is about to lift the ban. But the Obama administration is expected to use its authority for limited financial aid experiments to try offering Pell grants to some prisoners. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch plan a visit to the Goucher program in Jessup on Friday morning to make what officials call a significant announcement about financial aid.
On Monday, Duncan signaled the administration’s intention: He said in a speech at University of Maryland Baltimore County that the administration wants to develop “experimental sites that will make Pell grants available … to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail.” Officials have not elaborated on the plan.
Goucher remains enthusiastic about its program, which enrolls 60 to 100 prisoners at a time.
“There’s a long waiting list,” said Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen. “More colleges should be doing it.” Bowen, who cautioned he did not know enough to comment about the federal announcement, said in general he favors federal aid for prison education. “Anything that helps bring more education to the incarcerated is something we would support,” he said.
Bart Gordon, a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, was one of the leading sponsors of the 1994 legislation ending Pell grants for prisoners. Now a partner in a Washington law firm, Gordon said the ban was meant in part to ensure that federal money was not wasted on “sham schools” operating for profit inside prisons.
At the time, Gordon said, he also was mindful of a young man in Tennessee who told him one day that he was the son of a police officer and had been unable to obtain a Pell grant. It seemed unfair to Gordon that the young man couldn’t get Pell grants while inmates could.
“This was not a ‘beat-up’ on criminals,” Gordon said. “This was an attempt to get better use of the limited amount of Pell grant money.”
In April 1994, the House approved the ban on a lopsided bipartisan vote of 312 to 116.
When the ban was enacted, the government estimated that more than 25,000 prisoners received Pell grants in the first nine months of the 1993-94 school year, at a cost of $35 million. The total Pell budget was far higher: more than $5 billion at the time.
The Obama administration’s spending blueprint for Pell grants in 2015-16, counting discretionary and mandatory appropriations, totals nearly $29 billion. In the coming school year the maximum grant for each qualifying student in financial need will be $5,775.
What the new experiment will cost, and how many prisoners it might help, remain unknown. One congressional leader voiced displeasure at the administration’s impending action.
“How we ensure the long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program needs to be a national conversation, and as part of that conversation, we should discuss whether this aid can help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society,” Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the administration has chosen once again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law.”