Second Chances: More Colleges Added to Program Providing Pell Grants to Prison Inmates

By John O. Harney

With the number of new high school graduates in New England projected to decline by 14% between 2017 and 2032, the region’s higher education enterprises and employers cannot afford to overlook any New Englanders. That includes the many people whose lives have been derailed by the world’s largest incarcerator.

Last week, three New England postsecondary institutions—Boston College, the Community College of Rhode Island the Community College of Vermont—were among  67 added to the Second Chance Pell Experiment, created under the Obama administration to provide need-based Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals, allowing them to enroll in programs offered by colleges and universities or distance learning providers.

New England institutions among the earlier 63 experimental sites were: Asnuntuck, Middlesex, Quinebaug Valley and Three Rivers community colleges in Connecticut, Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts, the University of Maine-Augusta and Bennington College in Vermont.

Incarcerated people first got the right to apply for federal student aid in 1965, and by 1994, 90% of prison systems offered college classes to inmates. That year, however, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, barring incarcerated people from using Pell Grants to pay for college.

Then in 2015 came the Second Chance program, allowing people in state and federal prisons to get Pell Grants. Nearly 12,000 incarcerated students have been awarded the need-based grants since. More than 4,000 credentials—including postsecondary certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees—have been awarded to Second Chance Pell students over the past three years, according to the Brooklyn-based Vera Institute of Justice.

The story of prison inmates pursuing higher education was told powerfully in the 2019 PBS documentary College Behind Bars focused on the deep appreciation for learning about history, literature, languages and other humanities subjects that are too often disparaged outside prison walls.

That sentiment emerged as well at the New England Commission on Higher Education’s recent annual meeting, where author and literature teacher Annabel Davis-Goff noted that the prison ed program she directs at Bennington teaches subjects like Latin to inmates who will never get out of prison. As one student said, “Given the opportunity to be treated as a person and to be challenged has helped me to feel as I still have some value as a human being.”



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