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Opinion Virginia’s incarcerated can now receive Pell Grants. It will benefit everyone.


Gerard Robinson is a fellow of practice at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and co-editor of “Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons.” Rebecca L. Watts serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 3,500 students in Virginia.

Amid a presidential transition and covid-19 relief efforts, recent legislation has brought about a monumental, generation-defining shift to help incarcerated people successfully reenter society.

The federal stimulus package, signed into law in the final days of 2020, eliminates barriers that had prevented incarcerated students from accessing federal financial support for higher education.

For nearly 30 years before enactment of a controversial provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which overturned a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 permitting incarcerated citizens to receive a Pell Grant for postsecondary education, prisoners could use federal aid to pay for college courses. Before the ban’s enactment, of the 4 million students who received over $6 billion in Pell Grants to pay for higher education, about 23,000 were in prison. And more than a thousand of those students behind bars were in Virginia.

But the 1994 law disbanded prison college programs throughout the country. That disproportionately impacted underserved populations desperately in need of access to higher education — including low-income households, people of color, women and thousands of incarcerated individuals preparing to emerge as contributing members of society.

The new bipartisan law extends Pell Grant eligibility to the incarcerated and increases the number of students eligible for the maximum award. Critically, it offers opportunity to those looking to rebuild their lives and contribute to our communities. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), who has fought for this change for years, again led the charge to end the ban on Pell eligibility for prisoners in the 2020 omnibus bill.

Nationally, 68 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma, compared with less than 11 percent of males age 25 and older. The lack of a high school diploma is a significant barrier to economic prosperity and social mobility. A 2018 study from the Prison Policy Initiative found that, while national unemployment hovered at 4 percent, more than 27 percent (1.35 million people) of an estimated 5 million formerly incarcerated people nationwide were unemployed. Renewing access to higher education for prison populations through strong GED programs, and the recent change in legislation, will provide training that leads to employment for the formerly incarcerated — especially male populations.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, higher education programs in prisons reduce violence, increase compliance and lower oversight expenditures, all of which reduces overall costs to taxpayers.

The Rand Corporation found that access to correctional education more than pays for itself by improving public safety, increasing employment and reducing recidivism. Also, a $1 investment in correctional education reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years of post-release.

For Virginia taxpayers, the average annual cost to incarcerate one person is estimated to be more than $21,000.

As of March, the federal Education Department has approved four Virginia community colleges — Danville and Rappahannock in 2016, and Southside and Piedmont in 2020 — to partner with correctional facilities. Incarcerated people can earn an associate’s degree, a certificate, or complete general coursework that could boost employment rates for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Because Virginia and other states bar thousands of the formerly incarcerated from certain jobs because of their criminal records, the General Assembly and the Virginia business and technology communities should encourage colleges to offer credentialing in entrepreneurship. In the interim, current and formerly incarcerated people are creating their own employment pathways. For instance, of the 700 certificates earned by incarcerated participants in the Resilience Education program, which is in partnership with the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, 250 have been certificates in entrepreneurship, with another 167 in business foundations and 232 in financial capacity. Some alumni are themselves employers.

Research shows that removing the federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison will increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent on average. These benefits are exponential, as they help reduce poverty and disrupt intergenerational cycles of crime. Children of incarcerated students are themselves more likely to pursue their own postsecondary degrees or certificates.

Now is the time to ensure all Virginians have access to the education and skills they need to move away from the past and build a successful future for themselves and their families, and to expand the state’s educated workforce — a critical element to building and sustaining a strong economy.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Prisoners are again eligible for Pell Grants. It’s about time.

Dwaun J. Warmack and Kent J. Smith Jr.: It’s time to finally give incarcerated people access to Pell grants

Joel Castón and Tyrone Walker: D.C.’s promising initiative for young incarcerated people