Should Prisoners be Entitled to Pell Grants to Help Pay for College?
By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University
On May 21, a bill was introduced to Congress that would allow state and federal prisoners to receive Pell Grants for a college education, even while incarcerated. The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act would revoke Congress’s 1994 ban on providing Pell Grants to federal and state prisoners.
According to a recent PBS news story, the U.S. Department of Education is poised to announce a limited exemption to this federal ban on prisoners receiving Pell Grants. The news report stated that the Department of Education is expected to issue a waiver under the experimental sites program, which allows certain rules to be lifted in the spirit of experimentation. It is also speculated from the article that the current Obama administration supports this program.
My concerns have nothing to do with politics, but rather with social science, human behaviorism, and the need for a certain degree of common sense. As a social science researcher, I am held to a higher ethical standard when it comes to reporting information, which entails removing all personal and professional biases from my research. However, on this issue of reinstating federal Pell Grants to convicted felons serving time, I must make an exception and speak from personal experience.
Opposition to Reinstating Pell Grants for Prisoners
On a personal and professional level, I oppose this legislation. I take such a stance because a significant portion of our nation’s law-abiding students are ineligible for such grants. In so many cases, college graduates owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for a university degree that they worked hard to achieve.
For the last 13 years, I have had the great fortune of working with a wide and diverse student population. I can attest to the fact that my former undergraduate students spent countless hours reading, writing, and participating in structured lectures over a four to five year span in order to earn undergraduate degrees.
In addition, many of my students are working adults who are either actively serving in our U.S. military (some of whom are actively engaged in combat), or working full-time jobs. Many of my students are single parents with no financial safety net. They are pursuing a university education to establish a career, not just a job, with the intention of creating a better life for themselves and their families.
As a first-generation university student who essentially paid his own way through his undergraduate, graduate, and now doctorate degrees, I feel strongly that this is not the direction we want to pursue as a nation. There were many reasons why Congress banned Pell Grants to prisoners back in 1994, so why would Congress consider overturning its original decision?
Incomplete Research on Recidivism and Education
Advocates for reinstating Pell Grants for prisoners cite a 2013-Rand Corporation Study, which found that inmates who participated in correctional education—including remedial, vocational and post-secondary programs—were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. Participants also were 13 percentage points less likely to commit another crime.
However, if we review the study closely, the term “correctional education” is very broad and includes those prisoners participating in adult basic education, English as a second language, special education, GED preparation, and vocational courses—all of which I wholeheartedly support. I do not discount the fact that completion of the aforementioned correctional education programs will result in lower recidivism rates and will undoubtedly prepare ex-prisoners for positions that require those specific educational skillsets.
Nevertheless, after reading through the comprehensive 156-page report, I was unable to locate any specific information that spoke to recidivism rates among those who pursued college degrees while incarcerated, even for those who used private funding sources to pursue their degrees while incarcerated.
Therefore, the 43 percent reduction in recidivism rates, which was cited, is misleading and not necessarily a very persuasive argument as far as reinstating federal Pell Grants to prisoners. The 43 percent figure being emphasized by advocates is an aggregated total to include all correctional education programs, but does not specifically identify what percentage of those who pursued a college education while incarcerated remained crime-free.
Additionally, can we say with certainty that the college degree contributed to lower recidivism rates? Or was this reduction more likely to be a combination of internal and external contributing factors (higher self-confidence, strong family support system, religion, community stabilization, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, medication/therapy for mental illness, etc.)?
Ex-Cons, Education and Employment
Let us look at this issue from a realistic, practical perspective. Currently, 50 percent of U.S. college graduates are unable to obtain careers in their respective fields. In a 2013 report, Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability, noted that the number of college graduates would grow by 19 million between 2010 and 2020, while the number of jobs requiring education is expected to grow by less than 7 million. This situation presents a hardship for current and future graduates without felony convictions. How is someone with a felony conviction going to obtain a career requiring a university education?
In conclusion, there must be more research and evidence supporting the reinstatement of the Pell Grant program for prisoners. It is my opinion that such a program does not make sense when so many law-abiding students are so deeply in debt. If the Pell Grant program is to be extended, it should focus on providing more money to hard-working, law-abiding students than to our nation’s prisoners.
About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 13 years while also serving as author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a PhD in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.