Lifting the Ban on Pell Grants: The Importance of Educational Opportunities for Incarcerated Individuals

This article is part of Shared Justice’s Second Chance Month Series running throughout April and May. This series will explore barriers that returning citizens face upon release from prison, highlight the ways in which government and civil society institutions can respond, and invite our readers to participate in efforts to ensure that returning citizens have the ability to flourish upon reentering society.

By Chloe Buckler

After spending half of his life behind bars, Bryan Kelley pleaded with his judge to extend his sentence, consciously asking to remain in prison for another year. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Texas-based initiative in partnership with Baylor University, offered Kelley the opportunity to enroll in a “mini-MBA” program, thereby motivating him to request a longer sentence. For Kelley, now the current CEO of PEP, the educational opportunities he received while incarcerated transformed the trajectory of his life.

Bryan is not alone. Numerous incarcerated men and women have been affected by the transformative power of education. In the wake of the passage of the First Step Act this past December, there is growing momentum behind lifting the ban on Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated individuals in an effort to lower recidivism, support communities and offer a chance for life-altering personal transformation.

Since their creation, Pell grants—federal subsidies awarded to eligible students based on financial need—have helped numerous students pursue higher education. In 1994; however, incarcerated individuals lost access to Pell grants as a part of the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), creating a barrier for many in prison to pursue an education. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education launched a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program that authorized a select group of higher education institutions to provide Pell grants to incarcerated individuals. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has proven to yield beneficial results—not only for incarcerated individuals, but society as a whole—in regards to employment, public safety, recidivism and cost.

The Benefits of Educational Opportunities for Prisoners

According to a study from the Vera Institute of Justice and Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, only 9% of individuals leave prison with a postsecondary education, although over 70% of incarcerated men and women desire to participate in an education program. Why are prison education programs so widely desired by the incarcerated?

Incarcerated individuals who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate

For the over 1.5 million individuals currently incarcerated in federal or state prisons, education can be a driving force in changing the trajectory of their lives and propelling them towards successful reentry. At least 95% of all state prisoners will be released from prison at one point, most returning home with much of life to live. The question for many is not whether they will they return, but how they will return. As demonstrated by the Pell Pilot Program, expanding access to postsecondary education and training will better equip incarcerated individuals to find jobs, improve their families’ futures and contribute to society upon release. Lifting the ban would also help to create safer prisons and communities, as prison education programs are shown to reduce prison violence and recidivism. A 2013 RAND study found that incarcerated individuals who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate and 21% more likely to gain employment upon release.

Furthermore, reducing recidivism has financial benefits—lifting the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals could reduce states’ incarceration costs by a combined $365.8 million annually. Additionally, every dollar invested in correctional education is estimated to save nearly $5 in reincarceration costs over three years.  

Despite common misconceptions, the benefits of education are not limited to those incarcerated individuals who will be released. Education is also proven to improve the lives of those prisoners who won't reenter society by creating safer prison environments, equipping incarcerated men and women to become leaders in prison, and allowing incarcerated parents and grandparents to become role models for their children.

Public Justice Perspective

According to CPJ’s Guidelines for Government, the government is called to foster restorative justice and affirm the inherent dignity of all prisoners. Providing educational opportunities to prisoners accomplishes both of these things. One such way in which the government can uniquely perform such tasks is by lifting the ban on Pell grants. However, universities and other civil society organizations have a role to play in providing incarcerated individuals with education opportunities, sometimes in partnership with the government. Leading the field in this work are a number of institutions part of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

Over a dozen CCCU institutions are currently working in collaboration with state and local correctional facilities to offer a path for redemption, transformation and reconciliation within prison walls. While some of CCCU’s institutions are Second Chance Pell recipient schools, others have focused on spearheading new education programs in prisons. Lipscomb University started the nation’s first seminary in a women’s prison. Baylor University has welcomed the nation’s top business executives and entrepreneurs into prisons to train and equip incarcerated men, while North Park University welcomed Grammy nominated artist Lauren Daigle to perform with and for incarcerated men. Calvin College currently offers a bachelor’s degree in ministry leadership to incarcerated individuals, including those with life sentences.

While the unique approaches of these programs may vary, all of the institutions provide both educational resources and an invitation for transformation to incarcerated men and women. In the words of the Calvin Prison Initiative's director, Todd Cioffi, “[students] are starting to believe that their lives can be more than some of the worst things that they’ve ever done.” As effective as these institutions have been, lifting the ban on Pell grants would enable them to be even more effective in their work by allowing them to expand their programming, while extending the opportunity for other institutions to offer prison education programs.  

Students are starting to believe that their lives can be more than some of the worst things that they’ve ever done

In the words of Shapri D. LoMaglio, the CCCU’s Senior Vice President for Government & External Relations: “Society is at a crossroads. We are going to have to decide as a society whether the goal of the prison system is going to be restorative, or retributive.”  

As Christians, we are also called to enter into the redemptive work occurring in the world around us. Providing educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals is one way to do so. What are some other ways Christians can seek to work toward restoration and respond to Hebrews 13:3, which calls Christians to remember those in prison?

Engagement could look like taking the time to educate oneself on the needs of prisoners as they approach their release dates, listening to their stories and volunteering with an organization that walks alongside individuals as they transition back into society. Christians could visit a prison education program or reach out to one’s legislative representatives to advocate for educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals.

The government has the ultimate authority to restore Pell grants for incarcerated individuals. However, through civil society organizations and personal commitments, we too can help to lower recidivism, strengthen our communities and offer a chance for life-altering personal transformation, thereby allowing society as a whole to thrive. Expanding educational opportunities for those in prison should be a high priority for our country going forward.

Chloe Buckler is the Government Relations & Communications Fellow at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. She will be pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Pepperdine University starting in the fall of 2019.


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