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For Whom the Pell Tolls

Here is a question that many readers did not know was in search of an answer:  which students are more likely to go prison after graduating from high school:  (a) those enrolled in a charter school or private school as a result of participation in a voucher program or (b) those enrolled in a public school, both groups coming from the same geographic area and having parents of similar income levels.  For seeking the answer to that question  (at taxpayer expense) we are indebted to Congressman Chris Collins from New York.

On July 31, 2015, he introduced H.R. 3327.  The Bill, it says, may be addressed with the catchy title of “Kids Before Cons Act.”  The fascinating question for which it seeks an answer is only a small part of Mr. Collins’s Bill.  The Bill’s main purpose is to address the recently surfaced pesky problem of whether or not the federal government should be giving Pell Grants to prisoners who are slated to be released in less than five years after qualifying for the grant.  The reason that question has arisen goes back to 1994.

From 1965, when the Pell Grant program was first started, through 1994, prison inmates received $34.6 million a year in Pell Grants which was a small part of the $150 billion Congress hands out on a yearly basis in higher education grants and loans. In 1994 Congress, in its infinitely limited wisdom, increased criminal penalties for a wide variety of offenses and, at the same time, provided that prisoners in state and federal prisons were no longer entitled to receive Pell Grants.

By increasing prison times for offenders,  Congress enabled the United States, a world leader in many arenas, to add a  new notch to its leadership belt.  According to the Sentencing Project: “The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails-a 500% increase over the past thirty years.”  The graph reveals that the most dramatic increase came after the 1994 sentencing reforms were enacted.)

The elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners forced many prison programs to close, and the cost of attending those that survived had to be paid by the families of attendees.  A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation demonstrates what a mistake it was to eliminate educational opportunities for inmates.   The study found that inmates who participate in education programs had “43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.”  Four to five dollars were saved as a result of not having repeat visitors to the prison system for every dollar spent on education.

A bill has been introduced to lift the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners but,  as with all legislation in Congress, there is no way of knowing when or whether it will be enacted.  If the ban on Pell Grants is legislatively lifted it would most likely occur when the Higher Education Act is reauthorized in the coming months.  Unwilling to wait for that, however, on July 31 the administration announced that a pilot program was being initiated that would give some prisoners access to Pell Grants.  Known as the “Second Chance Pell Pilot Program”, its goal is to restore Pell Grants for prisoners and measure the effect of the grants on employment when prisoners are released.  Although Congress would have to approve a permanent lifting of the ban, the administration says it has the authority to run a pilot program without waiting for Congress to act.

No sooner was the pilot program announced than Rep. Collins introduced H.R. 3327 to block its implementation.  Since he had obviously not read the Rand Report, he came out with a statement born of the sort of ignorance frequently associated with members of Congress, saying:  “The Obama administration’s plan to put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of the taxpayers is consistent with their policy of rewarding lawbreakers while penalizing hardworking Americans. . . . [H.R. 3327] closes the loophole the Obama administration is trying to exploit and protects taxpayers from footing the bill for criminals’ educations.”

The second part of his Bill asks the question described at the beginning of this column.  The downside to getting the answer to that question is that getting the answer will cost taxpayers money since the Bill says that the Secretary of Education has to carry out the study and then has to publish its results on its publicly available website.  The upside is that the required study is probably the only study that has ever been conducted to determine how quickly secondary school graduates end up in prison as distinguished from how many go to college. An extension of the study might include asking the graduates who are incarcerated whether they harbor any ambitions to run for Congress once they are released.

The actions of many in Congress (such as Rep. Collins) suggest that a few years in prison may be every bit as valuable in preparing to serve in that institution as a few years spent in a different sort of institution of higher education.

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