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Opinion It’s time to finally give incarcerated people access to Pell grants

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Dwaun J. Warmack is president of Claflin University and a 2019 Eisenhower fellow. Kent J. Smith Jr. is president of Langston University and former chair of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Council of 1890 Universities.

As the presidents of Claflin University and Langston University, two distinguished historically Black universities in America, we have seen firsthand how education provides a gateway to empowerment. As HBCUs, our schools share the core value of providing an education that fosters mutual respect, diversity and inclusion. But we can and should be doing more to include incarcerated students into that vision. To do that, Congress must lift the ban on federal Pell grants for people in prison.

Earlier this year, Claflin University was selected to participate in the U.S. Education Department’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, joining Langton University and 128 other colleges and universities that offer educational opportunities for incarcerated students. The program, which allows these students to apply for crucial federal financial aid for these schools, has proved that corrections facilities and colleges can sustain large postsecondary education programs together if given the chance. But even as our universities commit to Second Chance Pell, we are calling on lawmakers to permanently lift the federal ban on Pell grants for all incarcerated people.

The mission and vision of HBCUs provide a unique educational space for all students — no matter if they take classes on campus, online or from inside prison facilities. If the Pell ban is lifted, more HBCUs would have a path forward to teach in prisons. Consider that even though Black men and women make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise more than a third of people in the criminal justice system. The Pell ban denies this disproportionately Black population the ability to secure the income, safety and opportunities necessary to transform their lives and their families’ futures. We in the HBCU community cannot stand by and allow this inequity to persist.

Earning a quality education plays a critical role in the successful reentry of formerly incarcerated people into their communities. Nationwide, more than 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released, but more than a third will return to prison within three years. However, incarcerated people with access to education and skills training are about 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those without. When we empower incarcerated people to start down a meaningful career path upon returning to the community, the cycle of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system is positively disrupted.

Education produces better outcomes for all: incarcerated people, their families and loved ones, the prisons in which they reside, and the communities to which they return. Incarcerated parents who enroll in college programs share their knowledge, skills and connections — their social capital — with their children and families, multiplying the impact of a single college degree. This is particularly important for people of color who have been largely excluded from wealth-building policies in the past. The result is a nation in which White Americans have 20 times the net worth of Black Americans, 35 percent of whom have negative or zero net worth.

Lifting the Pell ban before the end of this year is a common-sense way that Congress can advance equity and opportunity among Black communities. Removing the ban for people in prison could increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent on average and improve their chances for employment that provides a livable wage. It would also allow the combined wages earned by all formerly incarcerated people to increase by about $45.3 million during the first year of release alone. With the Pell ban in place, we are simply continuing to exclude Black Americans from securing upward mobility and accruing wealth in America.

If Congress takes this crucial next step in criminal justice reform, we could significantly increase the number of people leaving prison with postsecondary credentials. Claflin University and Langston University, in addition to the five other historically Black schools participating in Second Chance Pell, are excited to show our fellow HBCUs the opportunities ahead to further our missions. We urge lawmakers in Congress to make this transformative opportunity for postsecondary education available to all.

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