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ED Runs 'Second Chance' Pell Pilot for Prisoners

The United States Department of Education is pushing a new pilot off the ground to test the effectiveness of allowing colleges and universities to receive Pell grants for educating students incarcerated in state or federal prisons — some of it possibly delivered online. The "Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals" would allow participating institutions to provide federal Pell grant funding to incarcerated students, who are currently ineligible to receive those, in accordance with a provision in the HEA. However, one researcher has suggested that vocational training would be more effective in the long term than more standard academic education.

In August 2015 Secretary Arne Duncan invited institutions to apply to be part of the experiment. By the time the deadline closed in early October, 200-plus schools had expressed interest in participating, according to a department spokesman. The department is still in the review process, and no schools have formally been invited to participate yet. Those are expected to be selected by spring 2016.

The spokesman added that the selection process will assess institutions on several criteria: evidence demonstrating "a strong record" on student outcomes and the administration of the Title IV Higher Education Act (HEA) programs in areas such as programmatic compliance, cohort default rates, financial responsibility ratios, completion rates and "90/10" funding levels in for-profit schools. (The latter refers to a requirement that a for-profit school may generate no more 90 percent of its revenue from Title IV federal student aid programs.)

One area up for exploration is how much instruction will be delivered online. Some jails and prisons don't allow online access to inmates. Schools going that route may need to get additional approval from their accrediting agency or the Department of Ed in order to make changes to their course approach.

A November briefing from the National Center for Policy Analysis confirmed the value of delivering education to prisons, even as it suggested that the experimental program may end up being more "costly and less successful than traditional vocational training programs." The center is a non-profit organization that promotes free-market alternatives to government regulation in education and other segments.

Researcher Hannah Norman cited a Rand Corporation study from 2013 that found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those who hadn't received education. She reported that the average recidivism rate was 30 percent for program participants and 43 percent for non-participants. A sample of 100 inmates over three years found correctional education saved between $8,700 and $9,700 per inmate by reducing recidivism. "For every dollar spent on correctional education, taxpayers saved five dollars that would otherwise have been used for re-incarceration," the report noted.

However, Norman added, vocational training was found by RAND to be "far more effective in producing employment." Those prisoners who took vocational training were 28 percent more likely to get a job than those who didn't; and individuals who took "purely academic programs" were only eight percent more likely to obtain employment after their release.

"Because vocational training is so effective in reducing recidivism and ensuring employment, institutions should create incentives for inmates to participate, such as reducing their sentence for every program completed," the researcher advised. And perhaps Pell grants aren't the way to deliver that training, she wrote. "Instead, inmates should receive funds for targeted vocational training in order to use tax dollars in the most effective and efficient way."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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