Home Budgets Should Prisoners be Entitled to Pell Grants to Help Pay for College?

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

diploma cash
diploma cash

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.

AMU Criminal Justice Professor Michael PittaroAbout 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.


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  1. I do not agree with you. You state “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.” Are you assuming that there are no single moms in prison who would like also do this? Why would you apparently assume that inmates are only looking for jobs, not careers? You acknowledge that research supports the fact that providing education and the ability to get a job reduces recidivism. Why does it matter that there isn’t specific research about a college education. There is plenty of research that supports having a college education means higher pay, why wouldn’t we want to help people who are trying to become productive, tax paying citizens supporting their families be able to do this in a livable manner. Are you saying inmates only deserve to have low paying “jobs” not high paying careers? There are plenty of opportunities for helping people get college degrees, why is it that an inmate attempting to get back on track is any less deserving? If we, as a society, truly believe in the ability to change, learn from mistakes, “rehabilitate” then we need to let go of the attitudes towards “inmates” and Felons” The comments about “others” having to pay their own way is quite misleading. Many Many college students receive financial aid packages that help them afford school. Yes many come out of school with huge loans, this is a serious problem with our educational system. But to say that felons, by virtue of being a “felon” doesn’t’ deserve any kind of hand up, that that should be reserved for someone that apparently has never made is mistake, is an interesting statement.

    1. Hello Cindy –

      Thank you for responding to my article. No, of course not. The majority of women who are incarcerated are in fact single mothers and I would definitely advocate on their behalf. The intention of that particular statement was to recognize that many of today’s university students are non-traditional (working full-time, serving in the military, single parents, or simply less fortunate).

      My assumption is that inmates are indeed looking for stable careers. After all, that’s one of the main ingredients to reducing recidivism, but how will a college degree help them in obtaining a career in which a university degree is “required.” Unlike past years when employers asked if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony, most employers today now ask, “have you ever been arrested and if so, please explain.”

      The intention and primary focus of the article is on the Pell Grants, which is essentially money provided for higher education that does not need to be paid back, which differs significantly from the all-too-familiar student loans that most of us are very familiar with – myself included.

      You might be misinterpreting the direction that I was going with the article. I’m 100% on board for prisoners receiving counseling, education, and whatever else is needed to reduce recidivism. I am not opposed to prisoners pursuing a degree while incarcerated if they choose to apply for student loans or use private funding. Totally encourage that, but the pot of Pell grant monies is only so big; therefore, I feel strongly that less fortunate members of society have access to that money, which could be the financial lifeline between them going to college or not.

      My background is in corrections and I cannot think of a single case in which an ex-prisoner obtained a position “requiring” a college degree. We live in a society where liability and subsequent lawsuits are inevitable. As mentioned, I’m totally in favor of rehabilitation and anything else to provide a smoother transition back into the community. Student loans which must be paid back with interest – Yes. Pell Grants – Federal monies that are not paid back – No.

      I would think that the majority of college educated graduates paid their way, at least partially, through student loans, myself included. However, if given a choice to help an 18 year old kid with a potentially bright future ahead of himself / herself if awarded a Pell Grant compared to someone who is in prison, I would be in favor of the 18 year old.

      If there were a bottomless pit of federal money available, so be it and share away, but we know that’s not the case. We have a limited amount of Pell Grant money available. Should that change, my position might change, but until that time, I will always advocate on behalf of the kid, military vet, single parent, or young adult in the community.

      I know firsthand from working in Corrections that some people were dealt a raw deal (bad parenting, crime-ridden neighborhoods, etc.) that pushed or pulled them to engage in crime, and I advocate for pulling our resources together to help them get back on their feet, but the main point that I made was that I cannot think of any cases in which an employer required a college degree and hired someone who has served time. Now, I’m confident these cases do exist. Of course, they do, but I’d be curious to know what percentage that entails. An educated guess would be a small percentage.

      I’ve had students who were denied internships and jobs at Home Depot because they had misdemeanor convictions with no prison time and the employers would not hire them. The bigger issue would be giving employers a tax break for hiring ex-felons as we did in the past and to reduce the societal stigma that one’s past behavior is indicative of his/her future. That’s a way bigger societal issue than this one.


  2. I would like to add another comment. As the program manager for education in Wyoming Dept of Corrections, I have been able to see all sides. There are ways to provide college programming without a significant cost to anyone. Our staff are employed by WDOC and also are adjunct instructors for the community college. We focus on skills that will help our offenders obtain employment post release. These are college credentials (between 12 and 15 credit hours) in welding, construction technology. carpentry and computer applications. I believe our programs work and we have offenders who contact us to let us know they have been successful. We are working to track this through our workforce to get the “official” data. I understand as a taxpayer its hard to see any money spent on corrections but the “cost” for these programs far outweighs the cost of more incarceration.

    1. HI Betty – I agree with your position. My focus was entirely on the Pell money, which does not need to be paid back. I’m all for education, obviously since I’m in the field, but not free money when that money can be shifted to law abiding students. Partnerships with universities and prisons is totally cool, private funding and students loans are also cool, but not pell grant money. Thanks! Have an awesome day. Mike

  3. I agree with you Michael, it is not fair to law abiding people to now have to also pay for criminals to get an education. The Pell Grants should be used to help those who are on low income trying to get an education. What kind of message are we giving criminals if we allow this? That it’s ok to be unlawful because will pay for your education anyway?

    I graduated from school a few years ago and now I’m stuck with a ton of debt to pay off, and my degree didn’t help me land the job I have now

    1. Would you really like to know how many “CRIMINALS” are currently getting a free education from “LAW-ABIDING” taxpayers. I think you would be very surprised that about 30-40% of the Pell Grants are being paid out to people who commit crimes on a daily basis, even as residential students on a college campus.

      As for your choice of a major, I can’t help you. If you didn’t get the job you thought you should, then perhaps you should go back to school and change majors to something that is relevant to today’s needs, not just a major that you think you will enjoy taking. Getting any kind of degree is HARD, and NOT a guarantee of a job just because you get it. You can use all you basic education credits and just take the core courses for a new major, then maybe you will get that job.

      1. Hey Nancy –

        I agree that there’s likely abuse within the Pell grant system, but I would hope that the funds are being dispersed to those who meet the criteria. Agree that landing the ideal job can be quite challenging and not a guarantee of a job. My contention was with the free money that I feel could be better served to someone more deserving. I’m all for offenders bettering themselves and obviously I’m pro-education, but with a limited amount of free federal monies available, I would like to see that money go to someone who needs it more and who has a higher likelihood of succeeding. Best cost investment. Thanks! Mike

  4. Great rhetoric! I really enjoy this discussion. I am retired army and in corrections now. I work in a DOC re-entry program and while I do like the “idea” of helping inmates; I can say we absolutely need to get them a high school education first. That in itself should make a huge difference. Unfortunately, GED programs are usually only at DOC facilities and now days most parish/county prisons house a lot of DOC inmates but do not have the programs available to really make a difference.


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