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Expanding Education Opportunities in Prison

Pell Grants are an important source of tuition funding for lower-income college students. Since 1994, however, incarcerated persons have been prevented by federal law from using Pell Grants to pursue higher education.  Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison, a publication from the Vera Institute of Justice, explains how incarceration contributes to the cycle of poverty and how access to postsecondary education is critical to breaking that cycle. Without access to Pell Grants, however, many incarcerated persons cannot take advantage of this life-changing opportunity.

The article’s authors argue convincingly for lifting the ban on Pell Grants to incarcerated persons, demonstrating that postsecondary education in prison not only benefits the individuals accessing education, but provides more wide-ranging economic and social benefits, creating a pipeline of people who will be better qualified for jobs after release and reducing recidivism and its associated costs.

Postsecondary education in prison benefits incarcerated individuals by increasing employment and earnings potential after release. The authors estimate that employment rates among returning citizens who participated in postsecondary education could increase nearly 10 percent. Increased employment chances also translate to increases in earnings and therefore greater stability for returning citizens and their families.

Postsecondary education in prison benefits employers by providing more workers with the skills and education modern-day businesses need. The authors note the prevalence of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or at least some college. If incarcerated people were able to use Pell Grants to attain those credentials, they would increase the supply of workers to fill those jobs.

Finally, postsecondary education in prison benefits states. The authors believe access to postsecondary education and its attendant benefits will reduce recidivism, or the chances that formerly incarcerated individuals would re-offend and return to prison. This reduction in the cycle of recidivism would reduce state prison spending, in the authors’ estimate, by a combined $365.8 million per year.

The report concludes with the recommendation that “federal policymakers should right a past wrong by restoring eligibility for Pell Grants to all qualified incarcerated people.” The authors’ compelling case makes it clear that when our justice system provides opportunities for incarcerated individuals to truly reform and improve their lives, it benefits the individuals themselves and our society as a whole.

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