(Screencap via PaHomePage.com)
By Rebecca L. Watts
For the first time in more than 25 years, Pennsylvanians looking to re-enter society will have the opportunity to apply for federal financial support as they pursue a college degree.
This life-changing shift for thousands of Pennsylvanians is the result of efforts to expand the Second Chance Pell experiment and the elimination of barriers that had prevented incarcerated students from accessing financial support for higher education. The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility will allow up to 200 colleges and universities to offer their prison education programs to justice-involved individuals looking to rebuild their lives and contribute to our communities.
Launched in 2015, the Second Chance Pell experiment provides Pell Grants to incarcerated men and women for enrollment in postsecondary education programs provided in state and federal prisons. Through these learning opportunities, incarcerated adults can earn an associate of arts degree, industry-recognized certificates, or general coursework that will ultimately boost their opportunities for employment when they re-enter society.
The expansion of the Second Chance Pell experiment represents an important first step toward a brighter future for thousands of students in Pennsylvania state prisons. However, additional reforms could further enhance recent progress. Pennsylvania is one of 33 states with statutory bans on aid to students in prison or with past criminal convictions.
Restrictions in the commonwealth require applicants to have what is considered to be “good moral character” in order to be eligible for financial aid, with “unsatisfactory character” being used as justification to deny assistance to more than 16,000 potential students in state prisons. Because many inmates in Pennsylvania do not qualify for financial aid for their studies, it is essential that we expand state and other federal grant opportunities beyond Pell as well.
In addition to renewing access to higher education for prison populations, Pennsylvania must focus on strengthening existing GED programs and providing skill training that leads to employment for ex-offenders – especially male populations. Nationally, 68 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma, compared to less than 11 percent of males nationally age 25 and older. For prospective students pursuing higher education to improve career opportunities, a lack of high school diploma looms as a significant barrier to economic prosperity and social mobility.
Incarcerated education programs are more successful and have the greatest economic impact when they are connected to state workforce needs. Research shows that removing the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison will increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent on average. These benefits are exponential, as they help reduce poverty and disrupt intergenerational cycles of crime. Children of incarcerated students are themselves more likely to pursue their own post-secondary degree or certificate.
Experts note how education in prison has a direct impact on lowering unemployment rates for incarcerated individuals and can be a cost-effective way to improve public safety. These benefits are exponential as they help reduce poverty and disrupt intergenerational cycles of crime. Access to education also improves incarceration rates and the very high rate of recidivism, which comes at a price, not just to individuals but to all Pennsylvania taxpayers, with the average annual cost to incarcerate one inmate in Pennsylvania estimated to be more than $42,000.
Expanded access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students is a vital step to help more Pennsylvanians receive the education and training they need to rebuild their lives and become contributing members of society. But to maximize the economic benefit for the commonwealth, we must commit to further removing barriers that prevent students from accessing financial assistance and further expand our educated and skilled workforce. A pathway for those re-entering society is also a pathway to a stronger economic future for Pennsylvania.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 2,500 students in Pennsylvania. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.
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