Removing the Bars: Funding Formerly Incarcerated Students by Michael Brick

Though it was announced almost a year ago, we are finally beginning to see the positive effects of President Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. For those who do not know, in August 2015, President Obama announced a new initiative to counteract the Higher Education Act (HEA). This two-decade-old act basically deemed that any student who had previously been incarcerated in a Federal or State penal institution could not participate in the Federal Pell Grant program, essentially barring these fairly large population (primarily made up of already marginalized individuals via race, socioeconomic status, etc.) from receiving Pell grants, an often necessary funding resource to attend college.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program invited two and four-year institutions to apply to participate as an experimental site the list of those chosen colleges and universities was released last month. 67 institutions from all over the country were selected and will begin giving Pell grants to admissible students this coming fall. The full list of institutions can be found HERE.

Hopefully, you will see your institution or a nearby one on this list. If not, the Department of Education does expect to add even more colleges and universities to the list over the next year. If you do not work or study at an institution on this list, you may be asking yourself, “Why is does this matter? Why should I care?”

Why this is important:

In its most basic form, providing the financial support to give these individuals the opportunity to attend college is important because:

  1. While education is not a constitutional right, it should be.
  2. This equalizes the playing field just a little bit.
  3. Removes one of many barriers formerly incarcerated individuals face in everyday life post-release.
  4. Education works and we should be spending more on it!

Ultimately, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is important because education, especially higher education, has a major impact on recidivism or the chance that a previously incarcerated individual will return to the criminal justice system. While the percentage varies based on the research, policy agencies have found that education can lower the recidivism rate all the way down to 3% meaning a peaceful and just world in general.

This is also important because we are already spending way too much on the prison industrial complex and that money could go much further if it was spent on education. This month, the Department of Education released a startling report entitled the “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.” In the report, the DOE finds that from 1979 to 2013, public education expenditures increased by 107% while state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324%. While we definitely still spend more money on education in total, the proportional increase is definitely cause for concern. This is in conjunction with a dramatic increase in incarceration rates, while also interacting with a fairly stagnant enrollment rate. For the record, 16 states had a 150 or more percentage point difference in percent change between state and local corrections current expenditures per capita and educational current expenditures per pupil. Wyoming currently leads with the largest difference.

As many of us know, funding is hard to come by, yet the United States is dramatically increasing not only the incarceration of the population, but the economy to support to it. Perhaps this new Second Chance program can change that. Perhaps if we can provide new avenues for education and the economy to support more students attending institutions of higher learning, we can switch the country to favor education over incarceration.

How you can help:

As we all know, language is powerful. As a prison reform advocate, I am extremely sensitive to stigmatizing language and I encourage you to avoid using certain terms. Words such as convict, inmate, felon, probationer, or parolee carry institutionalized stigma that can make students uncomfortable. Try to use terms that humanize your students: formerly incarcerated individual, individuals on parole, etc.

Reserve judgments. If a student makes it to your office, chances are they have already battled numerous obstacles just to be there. Formerly incarcerated individuals often have significant barriers to employment, transportation, housing, and admission to college in general. If they make it onto campus, it is not our place to judge them or their past. Remember, there are often societal reasons for incarceration…it is not always about a specific incident or crime, but instead a systemic persecution of individuals and areas that leads to incarceration.

Be open and welcoming. Out of all the students I have worked with in my higher education career, the students in prisons have been the most dedicated and driven in regards to their education. They value it. They need it. They want it. They are hungry for knowledge. If you open yourself and your office to these students, you might be surprised at how involved they become. Due to the hardships these individuals have had to overcome, they are looking for something welcoming. We can be the doors!

Michael Brick is currently the Director of Student Services for the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also a PhD student in the Student Affairs program there with an emphasis on the intersection of prison reform and higher education. Michael is a passionate advocate for formerly incarcerated students and improving the quality of life for those serving prison sentences. He can be reached at

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