Op-ed: Rethink Pell Grants for prisoners

by Lloyd Bentsen IV

Source: Campus News

States are looking for a way to reduce their prison costs, and rightly so. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, the states collectively spent $52 billion on prisons in fiscal year 2012. In a new pilot program, the Department of Education has recently made Pell Grants available for students in federal or state prisons – but this move could induce higher costs and fewer results than traditional vocational training programs.

It’s no secret that increasing access to education reduces recidivism rates. According to a 2013 RAND stud, every dollar spent on correctional education for inmates saved taxpayers five dollars that would have otherwise been used towards reincarceration costs. With 9.3 million students already receiving $35.7 billion in Pell Grants – and the Congressional Budget Office already recommending tightening eligibility – perhaps opening up Pell Grants to larger amounts of applicants and higher expenses isn’t the way to go. Instead, we should look at a program with similar intentions and proven success: vocational education programs.

Vocational education programs are actually far more effective in producing employment for formerly incarcerated individuals:

  • Vocational training prepares individuals for jobs by giving them specific training relevant to that job, and often results in a certification.
  • In many cases, vocational education programs continue to help individuals after release through employment identification assistance.
  • According to a 2013 RAND meta-analysis, individuals who participated in vocational programs were 28 percent more likely to get a job than those who did not, whereas individuals who participated in purely academic programs were only 8 percent more likely to obtain post-release employment.

Vocational education programs are particularly effective when they emphasize occupations that are in high demand. In Indiana, the state works with the Indiana Department of Workforce to find and emphasize occupations that are classified as “low supply and high demand.” Targeting and providing training for these jobs allow inmates to find employment quickly after release.

Despite the proven effectiveness of vocational education programs, only 27 percent of state prison inmates and 31 percent of federal prison inmates have participated in vocational or job training programs. Institutions should focus on providing incentives for inmates to participate in these programs, like reducing sentence times for every program completed.

Though academic education also reduces recidivism, vocational students have a higher success rate. Because inmates already have access to some form of academic training or vocational training, Pell Grants are an unnecessary added cost to taxpayers. Instead, inmates should receive funds for targeted vocational training in order to use tax dollars in the most effective and efficient way.

Lloyd Bentsen IV is a senior research fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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