Inmates can use Pell grants for higher education once again | The Journal Times

Nearly 30 years after the tough-on-crime movement of the early 1990s led the federal government to cut off access to Pell grants for prisoners seeking higher education, access has been restored.

That makes earning college credits and completing degree programs more affordable for people who are incarcerated, part of a seismic shift in how policymakers think about criminal justice and the use of education to reduce recidivism.

“There was a general feeling nationally that incarceration needed to be about punishment and deterrence, and that was going to be ultimately the key to reducing incarcerated populations in the country,” said Peter Moreno, director of UW-Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars and the Prison Education Initiative. “In the past 20, 30 years, people were coming to prison and many, many of them were returning to prison after they had left because they weren’t prepared for success when they got out.”

Most prisoners are low-income and often cannot lean on family assistance to pay for an education. People cannot take out federal or private student loans while incarcerated.

Pell grants, a federal student aid resource for those who are low-income that does not need to be repaid, help reduce the cost barriers to a college education. In 1994, the federal government cut off prisoners’ access to the Pell grants. That access was restored in 2020, effective July 1 of this year.

But even with Pell grant access restored, accommodating all of the Pell grant-eligible students and increasing the number of degree programs in Wisconsin’s prisons won’t happen overnight — bureaucratic red tape, limited technology and even the layout of the prisons themselves will limit how widespread higher education can become in the coming years.

Prior to Pell grant restoration, universities and colleges already had started finding ways to educate incarcerated students through philanthropic support and job training programs.

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