By John J. “Ski” Sygielski, Ed.D.
HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College
(Note: This article was published on PennLive.)
Recognition is rapidly growing that educating incarcerated individuals results in rehabilitated lives and families, safer communities and financial savings. HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, welcomes this development, because it is our mission to create opportunities to transform lives through a quality and accessible higher education experience. While HACC conducts outreach and offers financial assistance, without access to Pell grants, higher education can be out of reach of incarcerated students.
The societal benefits of providing postsecondary education to prisoners are well documented. A widely cited RAND study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, $4 to $5 are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.
HACC is a great option for incarcerated individuals to develop skills and earn in-demand diplomas, credentials and degrees to start on a career path. HACC offers nearly 30 credit and noncredit programs fully online which can be accessed by incarcerated individuals. HACC conducts outreach to prisons in our region to help incarcerated individuals plan for higher education after their release. We have also helped nearly 150 recently incarcerated individuals re-enter the workforce through our STEP Academy.
Currently, prisoners cannot receive Pell Grants, the bedrock federal student aid program, to pay for community college programs. That was not always the case. They first became eligible for Pell Grants in the 1972 Higher Education Act (HEA). The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act cut them off in 1994. After losing this federal support, many prison education programs were forced to fold. Since that time, some states, local governments and foundations have tried to fill the void, but these scattered – if important – efforts could not hope to replace the federal government, the country’s largest student aid provider by a wide margin.
Now it’s time for the federal government to take the next step by fully restoring Pell Grants for specified incarcerated individuals (those who do not face lifetime sentences.) The ongoing HEA reauthorization provides the appropriate vehicle for this change. Both Republican and Democratic legislators have expressed their support for this concept. Some will oppose providing prisoners with an opportunity to access a college education, arguing that it is wrong to use public funds to support those who have violated the law. Others will object to the aid’s cost, adding that this support will adversely impact support for law-abiding citizens. However, much less than 1 percent of all Pell Grant funds would go for this purpose.
A targeted investment in educating jailed individuals, particularly through low-cost community college education, will save the government money in the long run without needlessly punishing, or advantaging, those with criminal pasts. The dramatic nationwide drop in crime should provide even greater certainty that reinstating Pell Grants to prisoners now is the right move. Community colleges are eager to take this mantle to help create a more economically healthy and just country.
HACC joins the American Association of Community Colleges and community college leaders across the country to lend our support to proposals that will achieve this end.
HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, is the first and largest of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges. HACC offers over 100 career and transfer associate degree, certificate and diploma programs to approximately 19,000 students. Also, the College serves students at its Gettysburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon and York campuses; through virtual learning; and via workforce development and continuing education training. For more information on how HACC is uniquely YOURS, visit hacc.edu. Also, follow us on Twitter (@HACC_info), like us on Facebook (Facebook.com/HACC64) and use #HACCNews.