Second Chance Pell Offers Prisoners Grants for College Education

By Erin Delmore

“While it’s called a Second Chance Pell, for many of our students, this is really a first chance,” said NJ-STEP Director of Transitions Christopher J. Agans.

People incarcerated in state and federal prisons are now eligible to receive Pell Grants: federal funding toward a college education.

“If you get a master’s degree in prison, while the overall recidivism rate for three years is about 43 percent, you get a master’s degree in prison, the recidivism rate is 1 percent. If you get a bachelor’s degree in prison, your recidivism rate is only 5.6 percent,” said Sen. Cory Booker.

Booker fought for the federal funding: $30 million to benefit 12,000 inmates. Twenty-seven states are taking part in the pilot program. Its experimental status allows it to bypass a 1994 law prohibiting people incarcerated in state and federal prisons from receiving Pell Grants.

“It became too onerous on the colleges to offer substantial programming in the prisons,” Agans said.

NJ-STEP, a program of Rutgers University, is one of 67 colleges and universities nationwide where inmates can use their federal Pell Grants. Administrators say the scholarship money will help them bring classroom education into the prisons, then matriculate students onto campuses.

“The college environment actually provides more reentry services than most of our students can find anywhere else,” said Agans.

“There’s this support. Like, going and walking through doors and having people smile at you, saying hello, saying how are you doing, wanting to help you and give you as much of themselves as they possibly can is what makes it so much easier to transition from a place where you’re looked at as a negative person, a bad person,” said Andre Scott, NJ-STEP student.

Inmates over the age of 24 are considered emancipated from their families. On an income of just dollars a month, Rutgers faculty say many inmates have no other way to pay for college.

“Not a penny of state dollars goes to support this work. This work is a combination of the students who are incarcerated, them putting their Pell money on the table and private funders, who think this kind of work is essential to changing America’s future,” said Todd Clear, professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.

“The Pell Program is eligibility based. Whoever is eligible gets a Pell Program. This is not something that’s going to be diminished because prisoners are now getting it. So the Pell Program is just like it was, if you are eligible in New Jersey or America for the Pell Program, apply. Get that money to continue to get your education and don’t think that this program is taking dollars away from that,” Booker said.

While Congress tackles criminal justice reform, this is one of a slew of executive actions by President Obama geared toward prisoner reentry.