Inmate Terrell Johnson, center, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others discuss a pilot program to give prisoners access to the Pell grants, allowing them to take college courses behind bars. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

“EDUCATION IS our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners. Without education, I am afraid most inmates leave prison only to return to a life of crime.” Those were the words in 1994 of Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island) as he argued against legislation making inmates ineligible for the college grants that bore his name. Pell lost that fight, but the failures of the country’s lock-’em-up approach have proved the wisdom of his words. We hope Congress gets on board with Obama administration plans for a pilot program to award limited numbers of inmates Pell grants to take college courses behind bars.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last month announced the start of an experimental program that will temporarily allow federal grants to be used to cover college costs for certain prisoners. Emphasis will be on prisoners eligible for release within the next five years. The administration is soliciting proposals from universities and colleges that want to participate beginning in fall 2016; it will collect data to judge the programs’ effectiveness. No cost estimates have been released, but officials said they will be modest and will not result in law-abiding students who are not in prison being denied grants.

Because Congress has banned Pell grants for prisoners, the administration is relying on a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives flexibility to test temporary changes in the distribution of federal student aid. Congressional Republicans argue the administration has exceeded its authority, but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, acknowledged such a program indeed “may be . . . worthwhile.” Studies, including a 2013 review by the RAND Corp. , show that prisoner education is cost-effective in reducing recidivism; people released from prison with knowledge and skills have a far better chance of becoming productive members of their communities than those without them. In the long run, that saves taxpayers money (an estimated $4 to $5 in reincarceration costs for $1 spent on education).

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is on Congress’s fall agenda. In addition, there have been bipartisan expressions of interest in reforming overly punitive and counterproductive criminal-justice policies. Making higher education more accessible to those behind bars should be part of those discussions.