JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Amidst alarming news of the Delta variant and ongoing COVID-19 relief efforts, we must not overlook how recent legislation brought about a monumental, generation-defining shift to help people in prison successfully re-enter society.

In late July, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will expand the Second Chance Pell experiment for the 2022-2023 award year. Launched in 2015, the Second Chance Pell experiment provides Pell grants to incarcerated men and women for enrollment in post-secondary 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.

In the north country, SUNY Potsdam and St. Lawrence University are affiliates in the experiment. The schools have combined their resources to offer a bachelor’s program in sociology as well as stackable credentials to students at Riverview Correctional Facility in Ogdensburg.

Officials have rightly noted that this partnership, an extension of their Prison Education through College Outreach program, will change lives while contributing to larger societal outcomes. The recent Second Chance Pell expansion will enable more colleges and universities, such as SUNY Potsdam and St. Lawrence, to offer prison education programs with federal financial support.

In addition to this good news, the federal stimulus package, signed into law in final days of 2020, eliminates barriers that had prevented incarcerated students from accessing financial support for higher education. The law increases the number of students eligible for the maximum award.

These landmark outcomes amend decades-old legislation and open opportunity to those committed to rebuilding their lives and contributing to our communities.

More than 25 years ago, amid bipartisan support, a controversial provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 overturned a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that had permitted incarcerated citizens to receive a Pell grant for higher education while they were serving a prison sentence. In the aftermath of that legislation, prison college programs around the nation were disbanded, disproportionately impacting under-served populations desperately in need of access to higher education — including low-income households, people of color, women and thousands of incarcerated individuals preparing to emerge as contributing members of society.

Nationally, 68% of all men in prison do not have a high school diploma, compared to less than 11% of men nationally ages 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.

So it makes sense that a 2018 study published by the Prison Policy Initiative found that 27% of an estimated 5 million ex-offenders nationwide (1.35 million people) were unemployed at a time when overall national unemployment was about 4%. Renewing access to higher education for prison populations through strong GED programs and the most recent change in legislation will provide skill training that leads to employment for ex-offenders — especially male populations.

Higher education programs reduce incarceration rates and spending. Implementing these programs in prisons has been shown to reduce violence, increase compliance and lower oversight expenditures, all of which reduce overall costs to taxpayers. Access to education also will improve the high rate of recidivism — which comes at a price, not just to individuals but to taxpayers, with the average annual cost to incarcerate one inmate in New York estimated to be more than $69,000.

But the expansion of the Pell grant to prisoners is not enough. New York is one of 33 states with statutory bans on state grants-in-aid to students in prison or with past criminal convictions.

Notably, New York prevents incarcerated people from receiving funds for higher education through its Tuition Assistance Program, the state’s companion to the Pell grant. New York has been denying TAP to prisoners since 1995.

The prior year, in 1994, 3,500 students in prison received assistance that was funded by less than 1% of New York’s TAP budget.

Expanding TAP eligibility to incarcerated individuals today would cost about $15.2 million, or just 1.5% of the state’s TAP budget, according to advocacy group Turn on the TAP.

It’s a worthwhile investment: Every $1 million invested in correctional education prevents 600 crimes, according to the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research. That same money spent on incarceration prevents 350 crimes — almost half the impact.

Incarcerated education programs also are more successful when they are connected to state workforce needs. A study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that workforce-relevant programs focused on hard skills (such as IT and business management) generated better employment outcomes than more ambiguous, general-education paths to employment. The same study also recommended tailoring curriculum and delivery models to optimize outcomes adult learners and those with learning disabilities.

Policymakers seeking to develop or implement education programs for incarcerated people also should consider the workforce skills most relevant to jobs in their communities and carefully prioritize programs that will provide healthy and stable work environments for individuals re-entering society. Employer needs for relevant, in-demand skills are changing, so New York must develop affordable, accessible education pipelines that align with the state’s workforce needs.

Research shows that removing the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison will increase employment rates an average of 10 percent among formerly incarcerated individuals. 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.

Now is the time to ensure all New Yorkers have access to the education and skills they need to move away from the past and build a successful future for themselves and their families and to expand the state’s educated workforce — a critical element to building and sustaining a strong economy.

Rebecca L. Watts serves as regional vice president for the northeast area for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited, online university based in Utah focused on competency-based learning that serves around students 3,000 students in New York state, including around 150 in the north country. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.

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(1) comment


There's a very real tension between fairness (which impacts incentives in society generally) and more focused cause and effect efforts for preventing recidivism. If we set up a system where the best way to get an associates (if you are coming from a deprived situation) is to get imprisoned, then we are incentivizing people to commit crime. But you have to admit that it's a bad plan to release people from prison with no chance of making a new life. With no other option, they'll have no choice but to offend again. So the options should be limited to much needed trades, not a full panoply of free ride degree options that non criminals might salivate over. And there should be plenty of opportunity to get educated in philosophy and social sciences, seeing as how people need jobs teaching that stuff and seeing as how there's no actual effort to find out what makes a person decide to offend and encourage them to reform rather than simply requiring them to quietly stay in the warehouse for a while.

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