Should Prisoners Receive Free College?

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

As I told you earlier this week, I’ll be talking about whether prisoners should receive free college. I get that this is an emotional issue for taxpayers. I’m not sure that I’ve ever met a taxpayer who didn’t almost automatically have an opinion on this subject.

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This was actually somewhat of a niche subject in higher education, but recently it’s come to the fore. And in my opinion, it’s come to the fore for two reasons. First, the good reason, which is that we have accumulating data about the effect of education on recidivism. The second reason, which probably I’m not as proud of, is that the enrollment of colleges is tightening. It is projected to get worse over the next 10 years, and colleges are trying to leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep enrollments propped up. So I think that second reason gives colleges as a whole administrators at admissions departments reasons to discuss the issue. The mounting data that we have allows people to talk about the issue in an intelligent way outside of education. However, the conversation isn’t particularly sophisticated. So I’d like to just begin with some basic information.

I suspect that many listeners to this podcast are aware of these facts, but it’s worth covering for the people who have tuned in to this podcast for the first time and are just curious about the subject matter. When you raise the subject of providing college for prisoners, invariably, one of the very first things that you’re asked is: Why should I pay for a college education for someone in jail? I would say that the best answer to that question is because you’re going to pay more if you don’t provide a college education to that prisoner. If you’re concerned about the cost of the incarceration of the prisoner and you are concerned about adding to that cost through an education, the first thing you need to know is that an education reduces the total lifetime cost of the incarceration of a prisoner, it doesn’t increase it.

Why is that? It’s because the likelihood of a person re-offending is lower, if we provide a college education for them and re-offending is a major contributor to the total cost of a prisoner’s incarceration over their lifetime. Let me give you some specifics. There was a 2018 Rand meta-analysis of the literature that found that inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs. The United States Sentencing Commission found that inmates with less than a high school diploma had recidivism rates that were a depressing 60-or-greater percent. While those were the college degree, had a 19% recidivism rate – 19% versus over 60%.

There’s tremendous economic benefits to prisoner education. That Rand study I mentioned found that every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly $5 in reincarceration costs over three years. For every dollar you invest, you save $5. If you think college is expensive, try keeping someone in prison and paying for that.

And the economic benefits go beyond just not re-offending. The people who receive a college education are going to become more productive members of society. On 2019 study by researchers at the Vera Institute of justice and the Georgetown center on poverty and inequality showed that Pell grant access to prisoners would increase their employment rate by 10% and their collective earnings by $45 million in the first year after release.

And of course the benefits go well beyond just the economic benefits that we would all enjoy. Remember that recidivism means that a person is returning to prison because they have re-offended. If the re-offend doesn’t occur, by definition, there is less crime. That means the rest of us who are not prisoners are simply surrounded by fewer crimes. So we get to live in a society where there are fewer crimes, where people are making more money and we are spending less to incarcerate those who are incarcerated. And don’t think for a minute that an educator is not going to point out that we’d also be living in a society with a greater number of educated people. And that is always a benefit to any society. There are a number of ways to provide a college education to prisoners. The most basic way would simply be to create education for those prisoners; that is, build the cost into the cost of incarceration. I’m not advocating for that, and actually I don’t know anyone who does advocate for that, because there are better ways to do it.

The best way to do it is to simply make the existing aid that’s available to everyone else. Also available to prisoners. This isn’t a proposal then for some freebie for prisoners that the rest of us don’t get. This is simply extending what is available to those who are not in prison to those who are in prison. So what’s available to them? The simplest way to think about it is that there is Pell Grant money, which is a federal grant program, and then there is state money that is typically designed to replicate or supplement the Pell grant money that’s available in most states. Prisoners are either outright not eligible for a grant money from the state, or they have a rule that essentially rules out prisoners from getting the state assistance, because currently prisoners cannot receive Pell Grant money, and the state has a rule that says anybody who’s not eligible for Pell Grants is not eligible for state assistance.

Prisoners used to be eligible for Pell grants. The Pell grant program was initiated in 1965 and it offered undergraduates from low income families financial assistance for different kinds of undergraduate study. In the beginning there was no prohibition against prisoners receiving Pell Grant money. This changed in 1994, due primarily to the rise of crack cocaine. There was a general mood in the country about getting tough on crime. Both Republicans and Democrats were very keen to appear tough on crime, democrats in particular, who were sensitive to the portrayal by Republicans as being soft on crime. And so Democrats tended to join legislation that appeared tough on crime. This included the 1994 crime act, which banned Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners.

Now I can understand the desire to be tough on crime. And truth be told, in 1994 there was far, far less data available and less of an ability to analyze that data that showed whether or not college programs were effective in reducing crime later or the cost of incarceration. But that’s not true today. Amid mounting data about the effectiveness of education among prisoners, advocacy groups began to push for restoring Pell funding officially at the federal level. That effort really began in 2015, the Obama administration created a pilot program called the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program brought Pell access back on a limited basis. There were 67 colleges and universities around the country that were selected to receive funds in exchange for very careful tracking of the data to measure the effectiveness of that program. Both the data, some of which I discussed earlier, and the narratives that came out of both the people who administered that program and the prisoners who were the beneficiaries, offer incredibly compelling evidence that this program should be expanded. The program was expanded in June of 2016 and as data began to accumulate and societal beliefs about those who are incarcerated primarily for drug related offenses began to change, there have been clear shifts in public sentiment. I can offer an example of that from my home state of New York. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo experienced tremendous resistance to his proposal to offer free college education to prisoners. And then over a period of years it was obvious that the opposition to it diminished to the point where in 2017, he was easily able to get approval for about 7 million dollars for education in correction institutions throughout the state. He was able to do that partly because he had a lot of good data from the Second Chance program.

Things are changing quickly at the federal level. And of course everything’s relative, so “quickly,” at the federal level is not the way regular people use the word “quickly.” But they are changing. So in 2018, the Senate created the First Step Act, which promoted prison rehabilitation, which was endorsed by president Donald Trump. A group of bipartisan senators introduced the Restoring Education and Learning Act (called the REAL act), a bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners throughout the country. And it also would restore eligibility for any state grants whose requirements are tied to federal grants. The REAL act is winding its way through Congress. It’s now 2019, and it still has not passed, but I’m very hopeful that ultimately it will be passed.

In the meantime, there are some specific things that states and colleges can do even in the absence of federal regulation. I gave the example of New York but there are other States that have taken steps. North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill which would make state-based scholarships available to incarcerated students. Michigan, which participated in the Second Chance Pell pilot program, is now considering similar legislation using language that would allow incarcerated students to access state scholarships.

Other States are considering similar measures as well, but even in the absence of legislation, there are specific steps that colleges can take for individual public colleges. There is often funding available for incarcerated students. You can’t give at Pell grants currently or some other kinds of grants to prison inmates, but jail inmates do qualify, as well as funding for other inmates who are on a GED pathway. A college can create its own policies for the limits on the funding. It could restrict them, for example, to nonviolent defenders or some other kind of criteria, but ultimately it can craft a policy that addresses the concerns of local taxpayers. The good news is that these programs can be created in such a way so that they appear to be budget neutral.

I say appear to be because I’m going to give some cautions at the end, but essentially what you can do is if someone is (I’m going to oversimplify here) Pell eligible, you can create a program so that say every hundred dollar increase in cost is matched by a hundred dollar increase in their Pell grant eligibility. The same approach could be used for almost anything that is a legitimate educational cost. The downside to this is that it’s not going to cover all the costs. If the Pell grant money covered all of the costs, then some colleges would simply operate with no other support but Pell grants: charge eligible students, the amount of their Pell grant award and they would have balanced budgets. This isn’t the case. The student is nearly always shouldering only a portion of the total cost of their education.

And so ultimately, even if, for example, you devise a program that applies Pell grants to people who are simply incarcerated in jails and not prisons, it’s not clear to me that you’re going to be able to do that without local taxpayer money. Ultimately, someone’s going to make that case and you’re going to need that local taxpayer buy-in.

In this short podcast, I’m hoping that I’ve given you some reasons to think seriously about education for inmates not as a cost, but as an investment that reliably yields a positive return. But beyond the financial consequences, education for me is about human empowerment and human dignity. It allows prisoners, I think, to visualize possibilities for themselves that go beyond the possibilities that they may ordinarily see if they’re confined in prison.

Obviously, it’s also something constructive for them to do, which is a constant struggle for prison. This is one of the reasons why prisons that offer educational programs actually studies show that they have safer facilities for both the prisoners and the staff than those who don’t emphasize educational programs.

This country once recognized the value of education, even for those who were incarcerated, and provided federal funds to support that. I hope that the federal government and all 50 States will recognize that truth, and we’ll return to the practice of funding education for anyone who would derive a benefit from it, not just because they derive a benefit, but because the rest of us derive a series of very real, very measurable benefits.