The Pell Grant program for incarcerated students is expanded

Tracy Andrus teaches criminal justice at Wiley College, a historically black school in East Texas. In 2017, he helped the college begin offering classes in several Louisiana prisons.

“We started in Louisiana because I know the prison system well there, because I myself spent three years there,” he said.

Andrus went to prison for check fraud, and after his release in 1994 he thought education was important.

“I knew that to be able to climb the ranks with that brand of ex-criminal in my jacket, I would need something a little more,” Andrus said.

Andrus now has a doctorate, and he wants to help inmates get that extra bit too. He said the college where he works relies on the Second Chance Pell program to offer classes in prison. Now the White House expand this program so that more schools can participate.

“It gives students who are in prison the opportunity to pay tuition for these programs that will prepare them to go back into life, find a job and move on,” said James Kvaal, undersecretary of the Ministry of Education.

The White House is allowing incarcerated students who have not repaid their student loans to regain a good reputation. Previously, if an incarcerated person defaulted on a student loan, they were ineligible for federal financial aid, including Pell grants, according to Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“You had to pay it back, you had to get back into good standing on your loan,” Custer said. “For people in prison, it is very difficult. They obviously have no income. They cannot repay their loans in most cases.

This offers a kind of fresh start for incarcerated students.

The whole move is a shift from where the country was nearly three decades ago, when Congress barred incarcerated people from accessing Pell grants. The Barack Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell program in 2015, and in 2020 Congress voted to restore access to all incarcerated students beginning in July 2023.

It’s important for people to understand that we can’t get out of the crime problem through incarceration, said Lois Davis, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. She is one of the authors of a study that found incarcerated people who participated in an educational program were 43% less likely to return to prison.

“Most of those incarcerated today will return to your local community,” she said. “So the question becomes, so what do you want this to look like for your community?”

Once people get out of prison, there are still barriers to getting a job. Andrus of Wiley College, who struggled to work in real estate after his release from prison, said states need to change licensing requirements that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from doing certain jobs.

“If you’ve been in jail for writing checks…what does that have to do with getting a plumber’s license?” Or an electrician or a contractor to build houses? he said. “A crime should not prevent you from obtaining a professional license for these types of jobs.”

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Ryan H. Bowman