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Helping Inmates Pay For College Could Dramatically Reduce Incarceration

Recent attempts to reduce the U.S. prison population have focused on reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and reclassifying crimes, but the Obama administration wants to expand reform efforts to prisoner education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to unveil a program Friday that will offer Pell grants — financial aid for college courses that doesn’t need to be repaid — to some inmates as part of an experimental pilot program.

Congress banned the use of Pell grants by prisoners in 1994. But Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a bill in May to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for the grants, which can amount to as much as $5,775 for the 2015-16 school year. Anticipating Duncan and Lynch’s announcement, a Republican congressman introduced a bill late Wednesday that would forbid the Education Department from providing higher education funding to prisoners for experimental purposes.

But amid a national discussion on mass incarceration, researchers say correctional education programs can improve the employment rate for offenders after they’re released and reduce the chance they’ll offend again.

The RAND Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank, has conducted extensive analyses of the available research on prison education programs. According to one RAND study, the elimination of Pell grant funding for prisoners had a profoundly negative effect on prison postsecondary education programs. Within one year of its elimination, participation in these programs dropped 44 percent. About half of all postsecondary correctional education programs closed.1

“Our survey results suggest that reinstatement of the Pell grants for this population may have a substantial effect in expanding postsecondary opportunities for state prisoners,” the authors wrote, noting that “these courses today are primarily paid for by the individual inmate or family finances” and that many inmates can’t afford the cost.

Lois M. Davis, the report’s lead author, said she couldn’t quantify the exact effect that the program’s reinstatement might have on prisoner participation in postsecondary education, but she said it will definitely save taxpayers money.

“We looked at the direct cost of prison education versus the cost of reincarceration, and we were able to show that every dollar spent on prison education saves taxpayers four to five dollars on reincarceration costs,” Davis said in an interview Wednesday. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

For taxpayers to break even on these programs, Davis said they would have to reduce recidivism (committing another crime or violating probation or parole) by 1 percent to 2 percent. RAND found that prison education programs overall reduce recidivism by 13 percent and that postsecondary programs specifically reduce it by 16 percent. “When you think about the range of programs that are offered in the prison setting, the evidence is very mixed,” Davis said. “But when it comes to education, it’s clear that it really has a dramatic effect in terms of helping individuals gain the kind of knowledge and skills they need to be successful once they get out.”

Even apart from direct financial return on investment, these programs have broader ripple effects. For some inmates, it could start a family tradition of pursuing a college education. The RAND report noted that in 2004, the latest year for which data is available, 37 percent of ex-offenders nationwide had not graduated from high school, and only 14.4 percent had some postsecondary education (compared with 19 percent and 51 percent of the general U.S. adult population, respectively). “For many of these individuals, it may be the first time in their family that someone’s attempting to take college courses,” Davis said.

She added that it’s important to think about these and other broader consequences of improving access to postsecondary education for prisoners.

“When we send people to prison, it doesn’t mean the problem just goes away,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of people who go to prison come back to their community afterward. So the question really is: For your community, how do we ensure that these individuals don’t return and reoffend?”


  1. There had been 772 on-site prison postsecondary programs operating in 1,287 correctional institutions in the U.S.

Hayley Munguia is a former social media editor and a data reporter for FiveThirtyEight.