As the government spent more money sending black men to prison, it devoted fewer resources to programs that would have helped the formerly incarcerated reenter society after they were released. In 1996, Bill Clinton’s administration passed a law barring drug felons from support services such as food stamps and welfare. Without the added economic security these programs provide, the formerly incarcerated are likely to struggle to pay for college on their own: 44 percent of community-college students are employed part- or full-time.
The War on Drugs also includes a slate of policies that make it nearly impossible for someone with a drug conviction to access financial aid for college. In 1994, the Clinton administration passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants, educational grants that help low-income people pay for postsecondary education— including college programs specifically offered in prisons. In addition, the 1998 aid-elimination amendment to the Higher Education Act denied any federal aid to students who were convicted on drug-related charges while receiving federal aid, further limiting financial aid to drug felons.* While Pell grants were experimentally reintroduced to some prisoners in 2015 by Barack Obama’s administration, most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are still ineligible for federal aid today.
What’s more, prior convictions can block students from admission to college. Some colleges ask for a criminal history in their application process, and studies have found that having a conviction dramatically decreases the likelihood of admission, even when controlling for all other factors.
Read: The Common App will stop asking about students’ criminal histories
Without a college degree, steady employment, and support services, formerly incarcerated people struggle to rebuild their life. Fifty percent of felons are rearrested, and 25 percent are re-incarcerated within eight years of their initial release from prison. Access to education could lower these high recidivism rates. Prison education has been found to reduce re-incarceration by 13 percentage points and increase the odds of employment by 13 percent.
These prison education programs also benefit society. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research institute that advocates against mass incarceration, the programs save American taxpayers $366 million a year by reducing recidivism; increase public safety by reducing crime; and support businesses by providing a trained workforce.
However, only 6 percent of incarcerated people have access to a college program at their institution today. Programs such as Sinclair Community College at Dayton Correctional Institute and the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, where I previously taught a course, provide college education to inmates. But these programs are limited without federal funding, relying mostly on state-correctional-department support, volunteers, and philanthropy to run effectively. Federal funding of prison education can provide consistency to these programs.