Obama admin wants Pell Grants for prisoners

The Obama administration recently announced a new federal grant program that will cover the costs of college for state and federal prisoners.

The three- to five-year Second Chance Pell Pilot program is the first opportunity inmates have had to use federal student aid since Congress barred them from receiving it in 1994. Only prisoners who are eligible for release can take advantage of the new initiative which is planned to begin in fall of 2016.

The program was made public during Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s visit to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland late last week.

"America is a nation of second chances," Duncan said. "Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that the administration does not have authority to proceed with the program without approval from Congress “because the Higher Education Act prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants." The Education Department, however, argues that the experimental sites section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 allows for this trial run.

According to Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell, the pilot program should provide the data needed to determine if the congressional ban on prisoners receiving federal student aid can be withdrawn. He told KATV that the test run will "not compromise or displace any Pell grant eligibility for any other populations."

No estimates on the total number of participating prisoners have been released. The correctional facility that Duncan and Lynch visited last week already has a connection with the local Goucher College; more than 70 inmates currently attend the school through a Prison Education Partnership started in 2012.

Pell grants range from $582 to $5,645 and are provided to more than 8.6 million low-income students according to the Education Department’s 2013-2014 school year statistics. The maximum award this year will be $5,775. The grants do not have to be repaid.

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