Perspectives

Second Chance Pell: A Community College Pilot Program Shows Success in Michigan

Evidence shows that individuals who receive education while incarcerated recidivate at lower rates.

In 2015, the Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell pilot program as part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to establish a more effective criminal justice system and reduce recidivism rates. The goal of the program is to save taxpayer money by reducing recidivism, and to create safer communities based upon research that demonstrates the positive outcomes of educating inmates prior to their release. According to a 2013 RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Department of Justice, inmates who enroll in correctional education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than those who do not. The Correctional Association of New York also reported in 2009 that prisons with college programs tend to be less violent and therefore safer for both prison staffs and incarcerated people.

Using education to prepare inmates for life after prison is not a new idea. Inmates had access to Pell grants until 1994, when former President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, effectively eliminating prisoners’ access to education. However, efforts to decrease recidivism rates through education did not stop just because Pell funding was restricted.

“We began by counseling prisoners on how to pursue education after their release by discussing the value of filling out FAFSA, for example,” said Dan Phelan, president of Jackson Community College in Michigan. “Since many prisoners had family living near the prison, we later presented a program called Family Pay where Jackson College would provide prisoners with education, and their family would cover the cost.” The local sheriff and warden were receptive. 

After the Second Chance Pell Pilot program was announced, Jackson College applied to serve as an experimental site and is now the largest of 65 active sites, educating a total of 1,305 prisoners. In order for a prisoner to participate in the program, they must not have undergone any discipline in prison, must be eligible for release within five years, and must otherwise meet the requirements for Title IV eligibility.

Phelan sees incarcerated students as focused. Many make the dean’s list. So far, 138 have been invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of two-year colleges. Within the walls of Michigan prisons, under Jackson College’s educational purview, students have the opportunity to obtain associate degrees in arts, applied science, business administration, and general studies. Students can also work to earn a computer service technician certificate, a business-administration certificate, or a 30-credit general transfer certificate to a four-year institution. Some continue their educations at Jackson College following their release.

The pilot ends in August. At the program’s conclusion, Jackson College, along with the other active experimental sites, will prepare reports for the Department of Education detailing their experiences.

Phelan hopes this isn’t the end for Second Chance Pell. “We have been working to ensure that this program is continued permanently in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” he said.

Continuing Pell for incarcerated students is one of ACCT’s legislative priorities. For more information, please visit the advocacy section of our website.

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