Until 1994, inmates in federal and state prisons were eligible to receive federal Pell Grants to finance their college education while they served their time. A pilot program, Second Chance Pell, was instituted in 2015 to open up Pell Grants to a select group of inmates working towards their college degrees. According to a recent NPR story (“Inside The Effort to Give Inmates Access to Federal Student Grants for College”) by Elissa Nadworny, “Prison education is gaining support, both at the state level and at the national level.” Although President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and “congressional leaders in both parties” have expressed support for prison education, “in order to make Second Chance Pell a permanent policy, Congress would have to sign off.”
What exactly are Pell Grants and should inmates receive them?
Named after U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Pell Grants are federal government grants awarded to college students who have financial need.
According to SLM Corporation, better known as Sallie Mae, a private originator of student loans that was, until 2004, a government-sponsored enterprise,
- Federal Pell Grants, the largest source of federally funded grants, are awarded solely on the basis of one’s financial need (academic grades and extra-curricular activities aren’t a factor).
- One must meet general federal student-aid eligibility requirements to be eligible to receive a Pell Grant.
- The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2018–2019 academic year is $6,095.
And what makes a student eligible for a Pell Grant?
- All federal aid is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- The student must have financial need, be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and be enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program.
- An undergraduate student must be enrolled full-time or part-time.
But according to the U.S. Department of Education,
You are not eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant if you are incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution or are subject to an involuntary civil commitment upon completion of a period of incarceration for a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense.
It has been argued that the benefits of investing in prison education programs exceed the costs.
According to a study done a few years ago by the RAND Corporation, “If an individual participates in any type of correctional education program — whether it be adult basic ed, GED preparation, college education, or vocational training — they had a 13 percentage point reduction in their risk of being re-incarcerated.” And for those who participated in a college program, “their reduction in risk of reincarceration was 16 percentage points.” The study concluded that “for every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers between $4 and $5 in reincarceration costs.”
But it has also been argued that taxpayers should not be on the hook for these programs.
In 1993, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) introduced an amendment that would ultimately ban prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. She argued on the Senate floor, “Because prisoners have zero income, they have been able to step to the front of the line and push law-abiding citizens out of the way.” Letting prisoners use federal dollars to pay for a college education is not fair to taxpayers, to law-abiding citizens, or to the victims of crime, explained Hutchison. And more recently, when the Second Chance Pell program was introduced in 2015, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill in the House to block the plan, which he called “an affront to taxpayers and parents” and “monies that could be better spent in other areas.”
So should individuals who are incarcerated be eligible to receive federal grants for college?
It should first be noted that many persons who are in jail or are serving time in prison should not be there. They are incarcerated because they committed a petty offense or a victimless crime such as drug possession. Only real criminals — those who have committed crimes such as armed robbery, murder, rape, or assault — should be locked up and lose their rights and privileges.
What about first-time, nonviolent offenders, incarcerated for minor offenses, who are excellent candidates to be rehabilitated and become productive members of society upon their release? Shouldn’t they be eligible to receive federal grants for college to give them a head start on turning their life around before their release?
From a libertarian perspective, the answer is no, of course not. But that has nothing to do with the fact that those persons are prisoners.
No one should receive federal grants for college. Not prisoners, not students, not young people, not the poor, not the homeless, not the disadvantaged, not orphans, not anyone.
That doesn’t mean that libertarians are against education. To the contrary. They value it highly. The reason that libertarians are against federal grants for college is simply that it is not the proper role of government to educate anyone. Neither is it the proper role of government to force some Americans to pay for the education of other Americans. It is, in fact, an illegitimate purpose of government to have anything to do with education.
But even if someone doesn’t share those limited-government sentiments, there is an insurmountable obstacle that must be overcome before the U.S. federal government can do any of these things: the Constitution.
Although many Americans may think otherwise, the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to spend one penny on education or have anything to do with education. That means there should be no Higher Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, No Child Left Behind, or Education for All Handicapped Children Acts; no federal school breakfast or lunch programs; no federal special-education, bilingual-education, or desegregation mandates; no federal regulations relating to education; no teacher-education requirements; no federal teacher-certification standards; no federal school accreditation; no Title IX mandates; no federal educational vouchers; no Head Start program; no federal Department of Education; no Common Core; no federal student loans; no FAFSA forms; and, of course, no Pell Grants.
In a free society, if a prisoner wants to receive a college education, there should be no stopping him. The issue is who is going to pay for it. If someone wants prisoners — whatever crime they may have committed — to receive general education, vocational training, specialized instruction, a certificate, or a degree, then he should be prepared to pay for it himself.