If there’s an argument against giving Pell grants to prisoners that particularly galls Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it’s the suggestion by some Republicans that the Obama administration is taking money intended for hard-working students and giving it to criminals.
“Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else,” Duncan told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. “This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.”
Last week, alongside Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Duncan appeared at a prison in Maryland to announce the launch of a pilot program that would make a limited number of inmates eligible for federal college aid while they’re still in jail. Congress banned Pell grants for prisoners in 1994, but the administration is relying on a provision of the Higher Education Act to resume the practice on a trial basis. The idea—backed by a 2013 Rand Corporation study that found prisoner education is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism—is one that has bipartisan support.
Yet the Obama administration is clearly taking a risk by launching the pilot program now, without waiting for full congressional approval that could come through the passage of criminal-justice reform, which has gained momentum on Capitol Hill in recent months. Already, some Republicans are accusing the administration of going around the law—an argument that Duncan similarly dismissed. “I think waiting on Congress is almost never a good bet,” the secretary said with a chuckle. He knows from experience. Duncan is one of two Cabinet officers (along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) who have served for the entire Obama presidency, and he has been waiting six and a half years for Congress to overhaul the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. (In the face of congressional inaction, the administration has exempted most states from many of its key requirements.)
“Quite candidly, Congress often doesn’t do much until we do something, and then they react to that,” Duncan said. “So it kind of spurs them to take action. But anyone who says this stops them from doing something or stifles debate—it’s just patently false.”
The administration is now waiting for proposals from universities who want to participate in the Pell grant initiative. Duncan said that while there are no plans to restrict eligibility based on the type of crime an inmate committed, it would be focused on prisoners scheduled for release “in the next couple of years.” About 700,000 inmates are released from prison in the U.S. each year, which Duncan likened to a “tidal wave.” “They’re either going to be released and go back to the streets and go back to a life of crime, and go back to being a menace to society, or they’re going to be released with some real skills and possibly even a college degree, or credit towards a college diploma,” he said. “And as a parent, as a taxpayer, I know which one I would prefer.”
In the interview, Duncan also addressed a more fundamental goal of education: keeping kids out of prison in the first place. The administration last year stepped up its efforts to close what is often described as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and Duncan said the government had spent about $5 billion on grants to turn around failing schools. He tied that effort to the push in many states and districts to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect people of color. “We’ve seen many states and districts start to change their policies, moving away from zero-tolerance, moving toward restorative justice and peer juries, and working with kids rather than putting them out into the street,” he said. “That’s a big, big step in the right direction.”
Here's a transcript of my interview with Duncan, edited for clarity and length.
Russell Berman: Just getting Congress to reauthorize Pell grants for non-criminals has been a struggle under Republican control. What do you say to families of students who have worked hard, still are saddled with student-loan debt and may wonder why inmates should get government assistance for education?
Arne Duncan: To be clear, this is never haves-versus-have-nots or whatever. Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else, and this is really about trying to help individuals get back on their feet. And ultimately why Republicans should—and some will—love this is it’s a huge way to reduce recidivism and save money over time. This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.
Look, when this program was in place 20 years ago, it was something like 0.1 percent of all Pell money, so the budget conversation here is not a real debate or a real issue.
Berman: So it’s not coming from some pool of money that is limited?
Duncan: Exactly. The opposite of that.
Berman: How many prisoners are likely to receive Pell grants as part of this program?
Duncan: We really don’t have any idea yet. To be clear, what we’re going to be doing is putting out a [request for proposal] for universities who want to partner with prisons. We don’t know how many are going to step up. We’re only going to pick ones where we think there’s a good chance of success, where there’s a high quality. And of those we pick, we don’t know their capacity to serve a certain number, so there’s no sense now. We do hope that many universities across the nation will step up and apply. And we think, again, this has a chance to have a very significant impact. And [for] Congress, which we hope chooses at some point to take this to scale, hopefully that evidence base that we build will help to inform that conversation.
So we’re hopeful, and we’ll have a strong evaluative piece to this, and we’ll sort of learn over time what works and what doesn’t.
Berman: As of now, what limits is the administration going to put on this? Would violent offenders be eligible?
Duncan: The short answer is that we’re first going to look to work with folks who are going to be released back into society relatively soon, in the next couple of years. So I think we distinguish less on the type of crime and more on the, ‘Are you coming back into society?’ And I kept quoting, you know it’s sort of a stunning fact: We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. It’s staggering, and because we have this mass incarceration system which is not working on any level—I think everyone acknowledges that—we release 700,000 prisoners from jail back into our society every year, like a tidal wave of inmates being released. And they’re either going to be released and go back to the streets and go back to a life of crime, and go back to being a menace to society, or they’re going to be released with some real skills and possibly even a college degree, or credit towards a college diploma. And as a parent, as a taxpayer, I know which one I would prefer.
People don’t want to admit it but it’s happening every single year, and so it’s really up to us as a society. Do we really want to arm them with skills and a chance to be productive citizens who are going to be taxpayers, or do we just want to perpetuate a system where the costs are mind-blowing and the costs to society beyond the financial are—just the fear factor on this thing is just very real.
Berman: So what happens if a prisoner gets his or her release before getting a degree or certificate? Will they be able to continue their education with the Pell grant after they get out?
Duncan: Absolutely. They can either stay with the same university, or transfer those credits or whatever, just like any other student. They may be pursuing an associate’s degree. They may be pursuing a bachelor’s degree. We want to see two-year options, we want to see four-year options. We want to see liberal arts programs. We want to see more skill- and technical-based programs. And we’ll get a sense of what happens.
The one former inmate who spoke at the event where we did the announcement in Maryland at the end of last week—it’s very interesting. He got a liberal arts degree, and obviously having the college diploma very significantly changed his life, but he said what was so helpful to him was just learning to think differently as part of the coursework that he took, seeing the world differently and seeing his place in the world very differently. And so while I think they’ll be a lot of emphasis on hard skills, whether it’s advanced manufacturing or IT, and we want that, I think he made a very emotional and very profound case for a broad-based liberal arts education, which I happen to agree with and which was interesting to hear firsthand.
Berman: You mentioned Congress. Obviously, the administration across the government has taken actions by itself on issues that have stalled in Congress but, as you know, there’s actually a fair amount of momentum right now on Capitol Hill for criminal-justice reform. Some Republicans are already criticizing the decision to start the program even in a limited way by yourself? Why not wait for Congress, and why risk Republican support by moving ahead unilaterally?
Duncan: Two things. I think waiting on Congress is almost never a good bet. [Laughs] That’s just the reality. And again I think it’s important for you guys, for the press, to cut through it, is that nothing we’re doing prohibits them from doing anything, stops anything from happening. This is just the ability to do a small pilot program under [the Higher Education Act] and they can debate this four years ago, they can debate it next week, they can debate it next month. It doesn’t change anything with Congress. And again, it should create an evidence base to help Congress make a wiser decision. And quite candidly, Congress often doesn’t do much until we do something, and then they react to that. So it kind of spurs them to take action. But anyone who says this stops them from doing something or stifles debate—it’s just patently false. There’s no truth to that whatsoever. It’s a way to cover their lack of action.
Berman: Let me just broaden it out a little bit, because obviously the main objective is to keep young people out of prison in the first place. What is the administration’s top priority or main focus when it comes to addressing what’s been described as the school-to-prison pipeline?
Duncan: I’ll try to give not a two-hour answer on that. We’re trying to do a number of things. We found that when we announced this with [former] Attorney General Eric Holder that the school-to-prison pipeline starts as young as pre-K, where across the country staggering numbers of young boys of color were being suspended and expelled, and that was devastating to find that out. I had no idea, but that’s the truth. So there’s not a short answer to your question. It starts with doing much less out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. It starts with having school districts really look at the data and look at how so often it’s disproportionately young boys of color—again, as young as 3 who are being suspended and expelled.
We’ve seen many states and districts start to change their policies, moving away from zero-tolerance, moving toward restorative justice and peer juries and working with kids rather than putting them out into the street. That’s a big, big step in the right direction. We’ve invested about $5 billion in school turnaround grants, which is trying to challenge those places, including “dropout factories,” where things simply just aren’t working for children. We know a wildly disproportionate number of folks who end up being incarcerated are folks who don’t have a high-school diploma. And today, we’re pleased to say that high school graduation rates, for the nation, are at all-time highs, and dropout rates are down. They’ve been cut in half for Latino students, by 45 percent for African American students. So we’ve made real progress and are proud of that. Having said that, we have a long, long way to go, both in having districts and states examine their discipline policies and we can’t rest until that graduation rate gets much closer to 100 percent, and that dropout rate gets close to zero. The best anti-crime program is a quality education, no question.
Berman: Lastly, bringing it to the debate we’re seeing today, what if any lessons can be drawn in the education community from the debate over policing, between people of color in the community and white police officers in positions of authority? You see some of this same dynamic in inner-city classrooms. Are there lessons that can be drawn or that you’re studying here?
Duncan: You see some of that. I will say that in the vast majority of our communities and our communities with high crime rates and challenging socioeconomic issues, schools are frankly often the safe havens. And while far from perfect, they’re the places where kids feel safer than the streets, than the community. So the more our schools can become beacons of hope—I’ve talked a lot about our schools becoming community centers that are open 12 hours a day with a whole host of after-school activities for children and families that will help them grow but will also keep them safe and off our streets. For me, the answer to some of that is having our schools, particularly in the inner-city communities, become true community centers, offering academic enrichment, and drama and arts and sports and music, and for parents GED classes and ESL and family literacy nights and family counseling. We have schools that have healthcare clinics. We have schools that are doing food banks, and where you have that kind of support and where the school truly becomes a community anchor, again I think the benefits for young people and their families are extraordinary and cuts through some of those negatives that you were talking about.
Berman: Are you staying on for the remainder of the president’s term?
Duncan: I’m working hard every day—long way to go!