Column: Lawmakers should lift ban on Pell grants so more colleges can work with corrections

Updated: Aug. 17, 2020 at 5:24 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - As leaders in education and achievement in Louisville, we’ve seen firsthand how access to college courses can serve as a catalyst for strengthening families and communities alike. But right now, incarcerated Kentuckians, their families, the prisons in which they reside and the communities they return to are largely excluded from the transformative benefits that postsecondary education can provide. Our leaders in Congress have the opportunity to take a crucial step forward in making postsecondary education accessible for all by lifting the ban on Pell grants for incarcerated people.

This spring, Maysville Community and Technical College (MCTC) was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative and be the only place in the state where incarcerated people are allowed to apply for Pell grants. While the Second Chance Pell initiative has proven that corrections and colleges can sustain large postsecondary education programs together, the limited rollout prevents the majority of incarcerated people from securing valuable credentials that open doors for economic opportunities when they return to the community. That’s why lawmakers must permanently lift the federal ban on Pell grants for all incarcerated people.

Keeping the Pell ban in place only denies people in prison the opportunity to secure the income, safety, and opportunities necessary to transform their lives and their families’ futures. This is particularly devastating for Black Kentuckians, who account for 21% of people in our prison system despite only making up 9% of the general population. The Pell ban compounds the disproportionate imprisonment of Black people by excluding them from ways to secure upward mobility and accrue wealth through education.

About 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released, and more than a third will return to prison within three years. But incarcerated people with access to education and skills training are about 48 percent less likely to return to prison than people who do not. Based on reduced costs of incarceration if fewer Kentuckians go back to prison, our state’s taxpayers could stand to save more than $3.9 million annually if the Pell ban is repealed. This means more funding that could benefit community programs that provide affordable housing, education, childcare, and more for the people of Kentucky.

Studies also show 65 percent of all new jobs require some postsecondary education, but only 22 percent of people in state prison have had at least some postsecondary education in their lifetimes. With the federal Pell ban lifted, Kentucky could significantly increase the number of people returning home with the postsecondary credentials that make them more likely to secure employment. If just half of eligible Kentuckians in prison enroll in college and earn credentials, they could earn more than $1 million more per year in aggregate earnings that could go toward family expenses and supporting our local economies.

Colleges are eager to work with students in prison, but the students still need access to financial aid. We encourage our lawmakers in Congress to lift the ban on federal Pell grants for all incarcerated people and make the transformative opportunity for postsecondary education available to everyone in Kentucky.

Mary Gwen Wheeler is the Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership working to improve education attainment across Louisville.

Yvette Gentry is Project Director for Black Male Achievement at Metro United Way and Executive Director for Rajon Rondo Foundation with background in Law Enforcement and government.

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