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Allowing Inmates to Receive Pell Grants: A No Brainer

Robert Hiltonsmith

Yesterday, the Obama administration announced a limited pilot program to allow some federal and state prisoners to receive Pell grants. Predictably, the plan has already drawn criticism from Republicans, who objected to the administration’s decision to bypass Congress to jumpstart the program. However, given the now years of deadlock in the legislative branch, it is more than sensible for the administration to use its authority to jumpstart a program that could improve thousands or even millions of lives while saving governments millions.

Just how effective could such a program be? Let’s engage in a thought experiment.

As of 2013, there were more than 1.5 million people incarcerated in federal or state prison, 100,000 more than a decade prior. State and federal governments spent a combined $58 billion on prisons in 2012, an average of nearly $37,000 per prisoner. Now, the maximum Pell grant is $5,730 for the 2014-15 school year.

Just how much could offering grants to prisoners save? Well, according to a 2006 study on the effect of education on recidivism for prisoners in three states, 21 percent of study participants who took an educational program were reincarcerated within three years, compared to 31 percent of non-participants. Using these rates as a guideline, what would the savings be if all of the over one and a half million federal and state prisoners received Pell grants?

In 2012 and 2013 combined, 1.26 million prisoners were released from federal and state prisons. If all of these prisoners had received education prior to release, we would project that 10% of them, or 126,000, would remain free after three years instead of being reincarcerated. After subtracting the cost of a Pell grant, that equates to a savings of about $31,000 per prisoner, or about $3.9 billion dollars all told. To put that figure in context, that’s enough to pay for about one-seventh of the entire yearly amount we spend on Pell grants.

These significant savings don’t even take into account the program’s other potential benefit, the improvement of the lives of the people who’d have a chance to get an education. Under our scenario, more than 100,000 people would be free from the terrible control of the prison system. According to the same study, more than three-quarters of the prisoners who received education found employment after being released, implying that the program could result in as many as 90,000 additional workers in the economy, leading to both increased economic activity and additional tax revenue for the government.

So, to summarize, is a program that could save the government as much as $4 billion dollars, give as many as 126,000 people their lives back, and improve the lives of many more a good idea? That’s a no brainer.