Report: Lifting the Pell Grant Ban for Incarcerated Individuals Is Good for States, Employers, Students

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Lifting the ban on a provision that blocks incarcerated individuals from receiving a federal Pell Grant could not only have a significant impact on those currently in state or federal prison, but could also save state governments millions of dollars each year, and expand the pool of potential employees for businesses looking for skilled workers, according to a new report.

The report—released this week by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI)—argues that opening up Pell Grant eligibility to the more than 460,000 otherwise eligible individuals currently in prison could save states as much as $365.8 million each year in incarceration costs by helping those who are ultimately released from prison to be more employable and less susceptible to recidivism. According to the report, nearly half of those released from prison will return within three years, and on average, formerly incarcerated individuals are 48 percent less likely to become incarcerated again if they take part in postsecondary education programs in prison.

“This relic of the ‘tough-on-crime’ era has resulted in long-term negative consequences for all of us, including high recidivism rates and intergenerational incarceration, as well as lost economic potential for individuals, families, and communities,” the report said. “Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison, through state and federal action, is a step we can take that can truly disrupt mass incarceration and break the cycle of poverty that comes with it.”

While many incarcerated individuals do have the option to participate in postsecondary education programs while in prison, many are unable to pay the tuition and have significant obstacles to obtaining financial aid. In 2015, the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell program, which allows 12,000 incarcerated students each year to access Pell Grants. The new report from the Vera Institute and GCPI, however, estimates as many as 463,000 currently incarcerated individuals would be eligible for Pell Grants.

Even a more conservative estimation—excluding those who are expected to be released within one year, and those who have already taken some college courses results in a population of about 352,000 eligible incarcerated students, according to the report.

Allowing that many incarcerated students to access Pell Grant funds and complete a postsecondary education could help make them more employable, lead to higher wages, and reduce recidivism, the authors wrote.

“What no report or data can truly capture, however, is the power of postsecondary education in prison to empower people and provide them with a newfound sense of hope and confidence, which can positively affect the communities in which they live, including those within prison and those outside of prison, to which many will return,” the report said. “It’s time we repeal the ban and create a more restorative justice system that increases safety and produces better and more cost-effective outcomes for everyone.”

It’s not uncommon for formerly incarcerated individuals to struggle even if they’re able to secure a job upon re-entry into society. After taking into account education and work history, among other factors, formerly incarcerated workers were found to have lower employment levels and lower wages compared with their peers who have never been incarcerated, the report said. In fact, one study cited in the report found the average annual earnings in the first full year after release for formerly incarcerated workers were about $13,900 less than full-time, year-round minimum wage earnings.

And while lifting the ban would come at a cost, it may not be as high as some would expect. The incarcerated population, the report said, would be just a fraction of the larger pool of millions of Pell Grant recipients annually. Even if every eligible incarcerated individual were to receive a Pell Grant, the total costs of the program would increase by less than 10 percent, the authors estimated.

“In reality, the expected impact on total Pell Grant costs likely would be much smaller,” they wrote.

At the same time, individual states could save millions of dollars annually on incarceration costs. If just half of the incarcerated population participated in postsecondary programs, the authors estimated individual states could save anywhere from a low of $300,000 in Wyoming to as much as $66.6 million in California. The average state would save $7.6 million each year, with a combined $365.8 million annually across the 48 states studied. If 75 percent of the population participated in a postsecondary program, states combined could save $548.7 million each year.

“Federal policymakers should right a past wrong by restoring eligibility for Pell Grants to all qualified incarcerated people, thus making the projections in this report—of improved lives, a stronger workforce, and state fiscal savings—a reality,” the report said.


Publication Date: 1/17/2019

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