Prison Pell Grants Get Support From Big Business, Prosecutors

In January Kevin Cramer became just the second Senate Republican to support the reinstatement of financial aid for college students in prison.

Giving incarcerated students the chance to pursue a degree is a bet on the potential for individual rehabilitation, Cramer (R-N.D.) said. It could also pay off for the broader economy, he said.

“The goal of incarceration ought to be to make productive citizens out of people who for whatever reason find themselves incarcerated, rather than just punishing them,” he said. “We also have a workforce challenge in this country, and we need a productive workforce to continue to grow our economy.”

Groups such as the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce want other lawmakers to hear the same message about the potential of a college education behind bars. The business lobby is throwing its weight behind the REAL Act (S. 1074), which would lift a quarter-century ban on students in prisons receiving Pell Grants, the need-based federal financial aid for low-income individuals pursuing a college degree.

Similar bills have been introduced in the past, but over the past 12 months a repeal of the ban has garnered significant bipartisan support in Congress for the first time. And Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has said advocates who have led the push for repeal believe the support of outside groups that have traditionally had the ear of conservative lawmakers could help push it across the finish line.

In addition to the business groups, prosecutors and correctional administrators favor lifting the ban. Those endorsements have added momentum to an effort launched by education advocates, criminal justice advocates, and religious groups.

The endorsements show the broad appeal of education in prison, said Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit that works with inmates and advocates for criminal justice overhaul.

“We’ve got all the bases covered,” she said.

‘Tough on Crime’ Rollback

About 23,000 students behind bars received Pell Grants to pursue a college degree or some other postsecondary credential in 1993-94, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of those students were enrolled in courses through community colleges (39%), private four-year colleges (35%) or public four-year colleges (12%). But opportunities for prison education to pursue a degree plummeted after enactment of the 1994 crime law, which barred incarcerated students from getting Pell Grants.

Democrats in Congress have introduced multiple bills to repeal the ban that went nowhere. But prison education regained the spotlight with the launch of the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell pilot program in 2015.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has spent much of her tenure rolling back Obama initiatives, plans to expand the Second Chance program. And the Trump administration has designated criminal justice overhaul as a major priority.

White House support was key for passage in 2018 the FIRST STEP Act, the first major law Congress approved to sought to roll back the excesses of the war on crime. CEO groups that backed FIRST STEP are now making prison education one of their top lobbying priorities.

“How do we create greater economic mobility and opportunity for everyone in this country?” said Dane Linn, vice president for immigration, workforce, and education at the Business Roundtable. “That’s what we’re really focused on.”

Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the Chamber of Commerce, said corporate business leaders want to back policies that produce a more talented workforce and support the reentry of people leaving prisons.

“As members and leaders of their communities, they want to see folks have an opportunity,” she said.

The Roundtable has pushed the issue in meetings on the Hill. And the REAL Act is one of 16 Senate and 13 House bills that the Chamber has included in its Congressional Scorecard for this legislative session.

Correctional, Prosecutor Groups

The Correctional Leaders Association, the lobby for prison administrators, made Pell Grants for incarcerated students a legislative priority beginning with a meeting in Washington last year. Since then, the group has coordinated more than 150 meetings between state prison administrators and members of Congress on the issue. CLA’s support could be notable to many conservative members who haven’t signed onto the bill, said Kevin Kempf, CLA’s executive director.

“The department of corrections is generally one of the largest agencies in each of our states,” he said. “Our elected officials want to hear from that sitting correctional director.”

Nelson Bunn, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said lifting the Pell ban was a top issue in meetings at congressional offices during the group’s legislative conference in Washington earlier this year. The group recognizes that most incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities, he said.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said that growing support for repealing the Pell ban shows a new interest in reversing policies produced during the tough on crime era.

“There’s a growing recognition that if we’re serious about enabling people to pay their debt to society and re-enter their community and have a fighting shot, that statistically speaking higher education is bar none the best strategy,” said Schatz, the Senate sponsor of the REAL Act.

In the House, 32 Democrats and 12 Republicans have signed on as cosponsors for a version of the REAL Act (H.R. 2168) introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). Six Senate lawmakers, including three Republicans and three Democrats, have co-sponsored the Schatz legislation.

Former Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who was sentenced to 26-month in prison in January for insider trading, introduced legislation in the last Congress called the Kids Before Cons Act to block the Education Department’s pilot program. The bill never attracted more than two co-sponsors.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, has argued states, not the federal government, should be responsible for education opportunities in prisons.

“I do not understand why we want to burden people all over this country to pay for programs for prisons by giving them Pell Grants when the states themselves can take care of this,” Foxx said at a committee hearing last year.

A Republican committee spokeswoman said her position remains the same even after business and correctional groups endorsed lifting the student aid ban.

Obstacles to Repeal

Although the number of outside groups making the case for repealing the ban has grown rapidly, questions over costs and student eligibility could complicate building support. But supporters of the REAL Act point out that lifting the ban for incarcerated students would cost less than 0.6% of current annual Pell spending, or less than $200 million, according to CBO estimates.

More vexing may be a potential fight over restrictions on Pell eligibility in prisons. The White House has endorsed lifting the prison Pell ban—but only for individuals eligible for release. Alexander included a repeal of the Pell ban in legislation last fall but the proposal would keep restrictions for people with life sentences.

Cramer said he would be open to compromising on eligibility if necessary to pass legislation.

“My goal is to move the ball forward, not end a fight with no one winning,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Cheryl Saenz at; Robin Meszoly at