Chance to earn a college degree in prison benefits inmates — and society

Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program deserves support, as do similar models that we hope can start to flourish now that Congress has rightly gotten rid of the ban on needs-based Pell grants for prisoners.

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If there was a program that could cut prison recidivism almost in half, would taxpayers be willing to pay for it?

We don’t know for sure, of course, but it’s our bet that a good number of smart taxpayers would be happy with those odds. After all, prison isn’t cheap. So every time a former inmate returns to a life of crime, gets arrested and is sent back to prison, taxpayers foot the bill, again — at an average annual cost per inmate of $34,450, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections.

Avoiding that cost, and making society safer in the long run, is a better use of public resources. Which is why college-in-prison programs are a worthwhile investment: Participants in such programs are 48% less likely to return to prison, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.



With that in mind, we hope Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program can continue to expand — and that similar models can start to flourish now that Congress has rightly gotten rid of the ban on needs-based Pell grants for prisoners.

At Logan Correctional Center, about a dozen women are part of the first cohort of the Northwestern program, WBEZ’s Anna Savchenko reported recently. The program, one of only a small number across the country, started in 2018 as a pilot program for incarcerated men at the Stateville Correctional Center. (Kudos to the the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the $1 million grant that is funding the women’s program.)

Prison education “doesn’t serve just the individual, that’s what’s been so clear from decades of research,” as Rebecca Ginsburg, an expert from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told WBEZ. “Higher education is not an individual good. It’s a good that supports all of society. It has ripple effects all throughout Illinois when we educate somebody who’s incarcerated.”

Beginning next fall, with the 2023-2024 school year, people in prison — about 1.5 million individuals are in state and federal facilities nationwide — will be able to receive up to $7,000 a year in Pell grants for postsecondary education.

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We’re under no illusion that prison education is some magic bullet. Not every person in prison will qualify, and those who do won’t always end up with a degree. But those in prison should have the chance to better themselves, increasing the odds that they will become productive members of society once they are released.

As one woman said about the program at Logan, “I’m actually seeing myself accomplish something. It does tremendous things for me.”

If a $7,000 Pell grant can help save $34,000 down the road, that’s a bargain.

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