What the Experts Say About Offering Pell Grants to Prisoners

Mary Ellen McIntire, Chronicle of Higher Education, August 3, 2015

The Obama administration’s unveiling of a pilot program to make some prisoners eligible for Pell Grants has been long awaited by advocates who have worked to bring higher education into prisons over the past two decades. But many are still waiting for details about what the program will look like and what it will mean for their broader efforts nationwide.

The pilot program was formally announced on Friday here at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup by the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Mr. Duncan and Ms. Lynch, who were joined by other administration officials and members of Congress, spoke with students enrolled in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership, a program that offers inmates at two prisons in Maryland for-credit courses through Goucher College.

Under the pilot program, a small but still unknown number of colleges will work with prisons to offer eligible inmates Pell Grants, even though a law, passed by Congress in 1994, has barred state and federal inmates from receiving that aid. Priority will be given to prisoners who are likely to be released within five years. Colleges will have until September to apply to be part of the experiment.

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Mr. Duncan said the department did not yet have a sense of the scope of the program. But he said that interested colleges would be evaluated on their proposals, including how they would work with prisons and how serious they are about the program.

But all types of institutions are likely to seek to be involved. Private institutions have been at the forefront of the cause since Pell funding was stripped, in 1994, Mr. Larson said.

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Mr. Duncan has already defended the legality of the pilot program, citing a provision in the Higher Education Act that allows the Education Department to study the effectiveness of a student-aid program without approval from Congress.

But Rep. Christopher C. Collins, a New York Republican whose district includes the Attica prison, has already introduced legislation that would bar the department from doing so. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who is chairman of the Senate education committee, has said the administration does not have the authority to run the pilot program.

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