Secretary Betsy DeVos, Pell Grants, and politics – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise29th June 2019
On June 25, Betsy DeVos did what few US Department of Education secretaries have done while in office — she delivered remarks at a commencement inside the Dick Connor Correctional Center in Hominy, Oklahoma. Inside this combined medium-minimum-security prison were family and friends who cheered on 18 men who earned a high school diploma, 13 men who earned an associate degree, and 59 who earned a workforce-related credential from Tulsa Community College (TCC) while in prison. Twenty-two men earned honors in their coursework, and one earned a bachelor’s degree from Langston University, which is a HBCU and a member-school of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
This was not her first visit to a correctional facility. Secretary DeVos visited the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland during the 2017 National Reentry Week to learn more about educational programs for youth and adults. The importance of this visit is that Oklahoma’s Dick Connor Correctional Center partners with two postsecondary institutions participating in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.
Surely few of the 100-plus graduates who walked across the stage ever thought they could pursue an education with federal aid from the US Department of Education, which oversees the Pell Grant Program. It is the largest postsecondary federal aid program in the nation and is targeted to low-income undergraduate students enrolled in public or private postsecondary institutions. Unlike a loan, Pell Grants-recipients do not have to repay the money. In 2018, approximately 7.5 million people received the maximum amount, which was $6,095. The budget for the program was $30.6 billion. Only a select few people in prison are eligible for a Pell Grant, and students at TCC and Langston University are examples.
None of the graduates likely ever thought they would have an opportunity to shake the hand of the US Secretary of Education — inside prison. Those who know DeVos see her participation in the graduation as an extension of her decades-old mission to open doors of opportunity, even behind bars. “I think what we see here today is evidence of the power of learning and education, no matter who you are, where you are, and that we all have to ultimately be lifelong learners,” DeVos said after the ceremony.
One person who knows the importance of in-prison learning first hand is TCC’s 57-year-old Leland Ross Stermer. He earned his associate degree while serving a 45-year sentence for his second armed robbery conviction. “This is a big deal,” said Stermer. “It’s going to help a lot of people. Guys in here, we know the recidivism rate; tools like this help us not come back here.”
The incarcerated men are not the only ones who believe education in prison matters. The President of TCC, Dr. Leigh Goodson, agrees as well. “It’s good policy all the way around in addition to being the right thing to do when we’re trying to help people rehabilitate their lives and go back and contribute to society and be a better citizen,” Goodson said. TCC began an educational partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and Dick Conner in 2007, before the Second Chance Pell Pilot began in 2016.
TCC’s education program is cutting recidivism rates. In 2018, for instance, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate for men in the nation. According to TCC, the recidivism rate for its students is less than 5 percent. This is four-times lower than the state’s average of more than 20%. It is worth noting that Oklahoma reduces an inmate’s sentence for earning college credit, which is an incentive for adults to attend programs like TCC.
Overall, there is research supporting the claim that incarcerated adults’ enrollment in education programs — adult basic education, adult secondary education, technical education, and postsecondary — reduces recidivism, builds self-efficacy, and improves workforce opportunities. The Vera Institute identified economic and fiscal benefits of in-prison postsecondary programs, as well.
If correctional officers, college officials, prisoners believe in-prison education works, why don’t we see more prisons using Pell Grants to pay for postsecondary education classes? Paying for college-in-prison with federal money is not a new idea, nor is the debate about its usefulness. This is at its core a political issue — and has been so for half a century.
President Lyndon Johnson, the only president to earn a degree in education, authorized use of Title IV grants by prisoners under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). Although the bill became law with bipartisan support, its passage was not without controversy. Nevertheless, prisoners used Pell Grants to pay for college for three decades. By the early 1990s, the U.S. had more than 700 college-in-prison programs operating in 1,287 correctional facilities. Approximately 23,000 incarcerated adults in federal and state prisons used $35 million of a $6 billion Pell Grant budget — less than 1% of the total budget — to pay for an education before the enactment of the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, made all prisoners ineligible for a Pell Grant. This ineligibility remains in place.
President Barack Obama, the only president to visit a prison while in office, decided to open the Pell Grant program to the incarcerated on a limited basis. On July 31, 2015, his administration announced the launch of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to allow partnerships between prisons and postsecondary institutions to offer certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor degrees in subjects ranging from business to the social sciences. More than 200 postsecondary institutions applied. On June 24, 2016, Secretary of Education John King announced the 67 two and four year colleges that were granted an opportunity to educate approximately 12,000 men and women in 100 prisons in 27 states.
Since the program began, Second Chance Pell sites have awarded 954 credentials. The June 25 gradation at Dick Conner Correctional Facility has increased these numbers. This is one reason for the Secretary’s participation in the commencement. “You are all examples of what happens when students can use aid in expanded ways,” DeVos told the graduates. “You are why we propose the Second Chance Pell experiment, or pilot, become a permanent program.”
When asked about the viability of giving prisoners a Pell Grant in 2018, she replied that is was, “a very good and interesting possibility.” At the federal level, the First Step Act supports the use of “recidivism reduction partnerships” and higher education institutions are surely one such partner. There is momentum among some stakeholders to get this done.
For now, DeVos reopened the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program application process to allow new schools to apply for participation on an experimental basis. As she noted in Oklahoma, “We are renewing some of the pilot programs and expanding that, but they’re all still considered experimental. Congress has to authorize making it a permanent expansion,” DeVos said.
So, we will see what happens on Capitol Hill.