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Feds announce new experiment: Pell grants for prisoners

The Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup is shown in a file photo from 2013. Goucher College runs a prisoner education program there. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Prison inmates will be eligible to obtain federal Pell grants to finance college education while they are behind bars under an experiment announced Friday, two decades after Congress banned prisoners from receiving such grants.

Under the experiment, Obama administration officials said, a limited number of prisoners could begin receiving Pell-financed instruction from a select number of colleges as soon as fall 2016.

The ban on Pell grants for inmates in state and federal prisons, enacted in 1994, remains in effect. But the Obama administration said it has legal authority to create limited experiments in the delivery of federal student aid.

This experiment will be called the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. It aims to help prisoners work toward an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated.

Obama officials said research shows that correctional education helps reduce the likelihood that prisoners will commit crimes again after they are released, ultimately saving taxpayers money.

“America is a nation of second chances,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are – it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.”

Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch plan to discuss the initiative in a visit Friday morning to an education program Goucher College runs with private funding at a Maryland state prison complex in Jessup.

The federal experiment will seek to help prisoners who are eligible for release within five years, officials said. Participating colleges have not yet been chosen.

Officials would not provide a cost estimate for the experiment but said they expected it to be very modest in comparison to the overall size of the Pell program. They said it would not take any funding away from Pell-eligible students who are not imprisoned.

Pell grants are not loans; they do not have to be paid back. According to the Education Department, the maximum grant for an individual in the 2015-2016 academic year is $5,775, and grants are based largely on financial need and cost of attendance. More than 8 million students receive aid through the grants, and the government has funded the program with about $30 billion annually.

Republicans in Congress reacted skeptically this week as word of the prison experiment began to circulate.

“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.”

Read more:

Pell grants for prisoners? An experiment will test reversal of a 20-year ban

More on how Goucher provides college classes for credit at Jessup prison.