AJCU Advocates for End of Ban on Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

By Andrea Solis Canto (Xavier University ‘20)
Summer Intern, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities

(L-R) Matt Cuff and Andrea Solis Canto met with staff members from the office of Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) earlier this month (photo by Jenny Smulson, AJCU)

(L-R) Matt Cuff and Andrea Solis Canto met with staff members from the office of Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) earlier this month (photo by Jenny Smulson, AJCU)

For more than two decades, incarcerated individuals in the United States have been banned from receiving Federal Pell Grants, thereby leaving the financial cost of post-secondary education up to the individual who desires to further his/her education while imprisoned. Since 1994, there has been no pathway for incarcerated low-income students in the U.S. to access Pell Grants, a significant hindrance on their ability to secure future employment and other opportunities upon their release.

A report published in January 2019 by Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that of the 1.5 million people who are incarcerated in the U.S., the majority will eventually be released. Of this population, 64% already have a GED or high school diploma prior to their incarceration, but only 9% are able to complete some form of post-secondary education behind bars, and only 2% obtain an associate degree.

Eliminating the ban on Pell grants is one of the few issues that both Republicans and Democrats agree upon in the 116th U.S. Congress. Access to Pell grants would benefit workers, employers and states because it would incentivize incarcerated students to earn a degree that would then allow them to obtain employment upon release from prison. Giving prisoners access to Pell Grants would also decrease the likelihood of recidivism by almost 50%, eventually reducing state spending on prisons by as much as $365.8 million per year (Smith 2019). A 2014 study found that 70% of incarcerated individuals want to enroll in an educational program and about half want a post-secondary degree: clearly, the issue isn’t for lack of interest; rather, it is about a lack of access to educational programs (Pettit 2019).

The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act of 2019 (S.1074/H.R. 2168) is a critical step in removing the ban and reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for individuals incarcerated in Federal and state prisons. The REAL Act was originally introduced in 2015 as a permanent fix to removing the ban, following Second Chance Pell, a temporary experimental program initiated by President Obama earlier that year. Across the U.S., 64 colleges and universities participated in the Second Chance Pell program, partnering with local state prisons to offer post-secondary education programs to eligible incarcerated students.

Since 2015, close to 10,000 students have received aid through the program, and many have continued to study and work successfully after their release. A second version of the REAL Act was reintroduced in April 2019 in the U.S. Senate by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Mike Lee (R-UT), and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representatives Danny K. Davis (D-IL), Don Bacon (R-NE), Jim Banks (R-IN), French Hill (R-AR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Mark Pocan (D-WI).

In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Education issued an expansion of the Second Chance Pell program, which will allow up to 12,000 incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants and will invite more colleges and universities to apply for the program. Applications are due by September 17, 2019. The expansion and benefits of the program will continue to serve as a push for Congress to pass the REAL Act. Many Jesuit colleges and universities already have educational programs for incarcerated individuals, such as Inside-Out exchange programs and service/volunteer initiatives, from Boston College on the East Coast to Saint Louis University in the Midwest, to the University of San Francisco on the West Coast.

As an intern at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) this summer, I have had the opportunity to research and advocate for the restoration of Pell grants for incarcerated students as a part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). AJCU has long advocated for the reauthorization of HEA, and this summer, we began meeting with different institutions and policymakers who support the passage of the REAL Act. In mid-July, I joined AJCU’s director of government relations, Jenny Smulson, and Matt Cuff, senior policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, for a meeting with staffers from Senator Schatz’s office to further discuss the strategies for advancing the REAL Act. The Senator’s office highlighted the bipartisan support for this bill as well as support from numerous institutions and business organizations. However, with all of the uncertainties surrounding the reauthorization of HEA, the staffers expressed the importance of continuing to vocalize support of Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals regardless of what happens with HEA. Jesuit colleges and universities can play a major role in continuing to advocate for the REAL Act, and Senator Schatz’s office was noticeably grateful to have the support of our institutions.

Some policymakers who oppose the removal of the ban have concerns regarding the quality of institutional offerings; the use of tax dollars for an inmate population; and providing this benefit to those who are imprisoned with lifelong sentences or for other violent or serious crimes. However, the advantages it brings prisoners, employers, those working in the prison and society, outweigh the costs associated with expanding the Pell program, given that the percentage of eligible individuals is small and among those seeking post-secondary degrees, possibly even smaller. For higher education, it is critical that colleges and universities advocate for reinstating access to Pell Grants. Providing educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals will yield great benefit to our nation by reducing recidivism, reducing unemployment and instilling a sense of value and contribution through learning, skills-building and job readiness to an otherwise overlooked segment of society.

Andrea Solis Canto

Andrea Solis Canto

Our AJCU network must continue to support education for all, including incarcerated individuals. Advocating for the REAL Act is an imperative first step to making higher education accessible to all students throughout the country. It is our responsibility to vocalize the importance of equality and justice within education, and to hold our elected officials accountable to all students through policies such as the REAL Act.

Andrea Solis Canto is a rising senior at Xavier University, where she is a double-major in International Studies and the Philosophy, Politics & the Public Honors Program, and has a minor in Peace and Justice Studies. Hailing from Boise, Idaho, Andrea has spent her summer in Washington, D.C. as an intern at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. She will return to Xavier next month to complete her final semester.