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Higher education is proven to help people in prison. New Pell grants aim to boost enrollment.

More incarcerated people in the United States may soon have the chance to take college courses, thanks to the expansion of an Obama-era program that makes higher education accessible in prison. The U.S. Department of Education announced last month it will expand the Second Chance Pell experiment to support up to 200 colleges and universities in offering prison education programs, up from the 131 institutions currently participating.

Since its creation by the Obama administration in 2015, the Second Chance Pell experiment has connected thousands of people in prison — who, by law, were previously ineligible for federal Pell Grant aid — with educational opportunities.

The Department of Education selects a limited number of higher ed institutions to participate in the initiative. The federal aid allows schools to partner with correctional facilities in offering academic programs. More than 22,000 students have earned over 7,000 postsecondary credentials — from certifications to bachelor’s degrees — under the program so far.

“[This expansion] is all about how education plays a crucial role in people’s ability to prosper and advance,” Amy Loyd, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, told the NewsHour. “Too often, justice-impacted individuals are left out of higher education.”

About 37 percent of people in state prisons don’t have a high school diploma or GED, and 86 percent of people who are incarcerated lack post-secondary education. With two-thirds of jobs today requiring more than a high school credential, those who leave incarceration without one face an additional barrier to building a sustainable future. A 2013 report from the Departments of Justice and Education and the RAND Corporation found “that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.”

“The ability to complete a college diploma is a way to have a counter-narrative and say that you’ve done some work that allows you to prove yourself as someone who is trying to do good,” Rob Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, told the NewsHour. “When [given access to education], you see people starting to change the way they think about themselves, their future, their family and their lives.”

READ MORE: Congress lifts long-standing ban on Pell grants to people in prison

Since the 1960s, the federal Pell Grant program has provided need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and some post-baccalaureate students, and they do not need to be repaid, unlike loans. But in 1994, during the “tough on crime” era, basic educational grants for incarcerated individuals were banned with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The argument was that incarcerated individuals were taking away funds from other students who were not serving time in prison. In reality, eligible incarcerated individuals used less than 1 percent of funds from the Pell Grant’s total annual spending, an analysis of federal data from the early ’90s found.

The Second Chance Pell experiment has provided need-based Pell Grants to a select number of incarcerated people, in order to prove that expanding access to college financial aid increases participation in opportunities that lead to a college degree.

In an April 2020 report on the first three years of the experiment, the Vera Institute of Justice found that incarcerated people who participate in prison postsecondary education programs are 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not.

Last December, lawmakers moved to lift the 26-year-old ban for incarcerated students, as long as they are enrolled in prison education programs that are approved by their state corrections departments or the federal Bureau of Prisons, and meet other requirements. When the new rule goes into effect in 2023, an estimated 463,000 incarcerated people will once again have the same access to federal financial aid as other citizens, as opposed to relying on the smaller-scale Second Chance program that serves a maximum of 12,000 incarcerated students annually. However, with around 1.8 million people incarcerated by late 2020, the number of incarcerated people with access to secondary education through Pell grants would still be less than a quarter of all of the people in jails and prisons in the United States.

The maximum Pell grant award during the 2020-2021 school year was $6,345. Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Dean of Faculty at North Park University, has been offering classes to prisons in Illinois since 2015 without federal financial aid. North Park University plans to apply to the Pell grant program once it is reinstated in 2023. Currently operating on a budget of $3,000 per student per year, Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom predicts their in-prison programming could vastly improve if their budget could be doubled with the help of Pell grants.

“It would allow us to give more resources to our writing center, which gets students who haven’t been in school for a while academically prepared, publishes their writing work, and trains them to become writing advisers on the inside and help other students,” Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom said. “We’re doing all that on a very minimal budget, but if we had double the budget, it would catapult us into a whole other level of programming.”

In the meantime, the Education Department will be taking the lessons they’ve learned from the expanded experiment to develop regulations that ensure incarcerated students on federal financial aid are receiving an equal education. Some advocates fear that incarcerated people could be exploited by for-profit colleges looking for an easy payout.

“We think it’s really critical to issue regulations before the provision takes effect to ensure that students have really good, equitable options for post-secondary education and aren’t subjected to programs with inferior quality just because they happen to be in incarcerated settings,” Loyd said.

Jorge Antonio Renaud, a national criminal justice director at Latino Justice, told the NewsHour that teaching in-person classes in prison, as opposed to using tablets for online education, is an important way to ensure incarcerated individuals using Pell grants are getting an equitable education.

“A lot of prisons are moving to tablets,” Renaud said. “And unfortunately, a lot of the people who are incarcerated and their families don’t see the dangers in that. It’s not to say that all online classes aren’t good. But they’re not going to have access to the internet [in prison]. They’re going to offer you modules and you’re going to check off some boxes.”

Federal aid applicants who are incarcerated may still be ineligible for the Pell Grant if they have loans in default, meaning an unpaid federal student loan from before they were incarcerated.

The Department of Education is exploring ways to help people who have previously defaulted on federal student loans to reestablish their eligibility for federal financial aid.

The expansion of the Second Chance Pell experiment increases its geographic range, which will help the Department of Education get a broader understanding of the effectiveness of in-prison education programs around the country. The program currently operates in 30 states, but the Department of Education is working toward a goal of including programs in most or all 50 states.

“This expansion will include a much wider variety of post-secondary education programs serving a more diverse population,” Loyd said. “We are looking to learn from that so that we can regulate and more effectively and more equitably serve students when we do fully reinstate Pell Grants for them.”