The Obama administration announced Friday that certain federal and state prisoners will be eligible for federal Pell grants to pay for college classes while they serve out their time behind bars.
The U.S. Department of Education revealed the pilot program with the aim to keep convicts from returning to incarceration by giving them the opportunity to secure jobs and “turn their lives around.”
The program lifts a 20-year ban on inmates receiving Pell grants following multiple studies that found education programs reduce recidivism rates, breaking the cycle of criminal relapses and in turn saving taxpayer money.
“We know from research that incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education — including remedial, vocational and postsecondary programs — are more likely to stay out of prison; more likely to seek, gain and maintain employment; and substantially more likely to remain crime-free,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
Pell grants were created in 1965 as federal financial aid for low-income college students that do not need to be repaid. This upcoming school year, students can receive up to $5,775 to help pay for tuition and other educational expenses.
Congress banned prisoners from Pell grants in 1994 after lawmakers argued it was unfair for prisoners to receive financial aid when many law-abiding citizens were not.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Lynch in the announcement at Goucher College’s Prison Education Partnership at the Maryland Correctional Institute. She said the program will create “experimental sites” for inmate’s to receive Pell grants to “help them get job training and secure a productive life” once they leave prison, the Associated Press reports.
More than 70 students from two separate prisons are enrolled in the Goucher College partnership. It is among many schools that offer degrees to people in prison as part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which formed in 2009 and does not receive government funding.
In its press release, the Department of Education cited a 2013 RAND Corporation study that found incarcerated people who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than prisoners who did not participate. The study also found the programs would cost-effectively save the government money because the recidivism rates would be lower.
The program is a piece of a broader Obama administration push to overhaul the U.S.’s criminal justice system. President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 inmates earlier this month, traveling to a federal prison in Oklahoma days later, becoming the first sitting president to make such a visit.