Why Obama’s Pell Grants For Prisoners Could Be Huge For Students Of Color

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In a move that could drastically reduce the recidivism rate among inmates, the Obama administration will soon lift a ban that has kept federal and state prisoners from accessing financial aid for school for more than 20 years. The future grants could have a particularly huge effect on people of color, who are more likely to be incarcerated than white people and less likely to attend college. Black and Latino people in the general population already have trouble accessing higher education due to financial constraints and racially-biased application processes, and minorities behind bars have an even tougher time pursuing a college degree upon reentry.

On Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will announce a plan to give inmates Pell grants — education grants provided by the government — for the first time since 1994, in an attempt to lower the possibility of re-offending in the future. To circumvent a Congressional ban on giving the grants to people behind bars, the administration is expected to hone in on a section of the Higher Education Act that empowers the Department of Education (ED) to experiment with policies by rejecting aspects of the law temporarily. The grant allowance is expected to last five years, but the amount that inmates can receive is yet to be determined. Low income students in the general population can receive up to $5,775. According to the ED website, the money can go towards tuition, room and board, and school fees.

Today, 1 in 6 black men and 1 in 36 Latino men are incarcerated in the U.S., compared to 1 in 106 white males. Latinas are roughly 70 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated, and black women are three times more likely than their white female counterparts.

Young minorities who manage to stay out of prisons already face financial barriers to higher education, so receiving Pell grants for classes behind bars would allow prisoners of color to avoid similar challenges. Only one-fifth of Americans agree that post-secondary education in affordable. The vast majority of black and Latino students who complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) come from low-income households, and make up the majority of need-based grant recipients. In fact, Pell grants are considered insufficient sources of aid because they only cover a fraction of higher education costs. These financial constraints are exacerbated for the 60 percent of inmates who remain unemployed when they re-enter society and are subsequently unable to pay for school.

And former inmates are not likely to be accepted by schools, so the ability to receive a postsecondary education while incarcerated offers them a better chance of future advancement. A study by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) concluded that nearly 50 percent of colleges take high school students’ disciplinary records into account during the admissions process. But examining those records disproportionately impacts black and Latino students, who comprise 70 percent of law enforcement referrals and school arrests — due in large part to egregious disciplinary policies. If schools consider past criminal behavior, convicted felons have a target on their backs as well. Indeed, a separate CCA study determined that having to check “yes” when asked about prior felony convictions on college applications severely reduces the likelihood of getting in.

But proponents of restoring Pell grants for inmates have room to be optimistic, as research shows that prison education reduces recividism and increases chances of employment when inmates enter the general population. A Rand Corporation report, which forms the basis for the new Pell grant program, found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs, including academic programs and vocational training, are 43 percent less likely to recidivate. The chances of attaining employment are also 13 percent higher for inmates who receive an education behind bars, compared to prisoners who do not. And the chances of employment are 8 percent higher for individuals who take part in academic instruction specifically.