States – not just Congress – should unlock student financial aid for people in prison

When it comes to higher education in prison, much of the media and advocacy focus is on trying to get Congress to lift a longstanding ban on giving Pell Grants to people serving time.

While a bipartisan effort to restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison has stirred optimism among advocates, the top Republican on the House Education Committee – U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina – questioned whether the federal government should make federal money available to people in prison.

“I do not understand why we want to burden people all over this country to pay for programs for prisons by giving them Pell Grants when the states themselves can take care of this,” Foxx said during a May 9 congressional hearing on how to improve college completion rates.

In a follow-up email to The Conversation, a spokesperson for Foxx wrote that the congresswoman believes that “more work can and should be done to educate incarcerated individuals.” She also stated that the congresswoman believes the federal government is “not the only solution, and that states have a leadership role they must play.”

I believe Foxx is right that states could fund higher education in prison. However, when I examined state laws and policies nationwide, I found that many states – just like Congress in 1994 – have explicitly banned incarcerated people from receiving state financial aid grants.

Grants off-limits

As part of my research on policies that affect people who were impacted by the criminal justice system, I analyzed the state statutes, regulations and program manuals for at least 357 active, state-funded grant programs for college students. Approximately 37% – or 131 of them – across 26 states explicitly deny aid eligibility to incarcerated students or students with criminal convictions.

To understand why the state bans on financial aid were enacted, I reviewed historical documents and interviewed former state policymakers who created the bans.

HOPE lost in Georgia

One of the most well-known state scholarship programs is the Georgia HOPE Scholarship, an initiative of the late Democratic Gov. Zell Miller.

A former staffer in Gov. Miller’s administration told me that a 1994 audit found that incarcerated students enrolled in courses through private nonprofit colleges were using what was then called the HOPE Grant, a flat US$500 per semester scholarship.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, right, stands with President Clinton’s Chief of Staff Leon Panetta before graduation ceremonies at Princeton University in 1996. Clinton, who spoke at the commencement, invited Miller to join him at the graduation because of the success of Miller’s higher education program in Georgia. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
For the tough-on-crime Gov. Miller – who was facing his November 1994 reelection – this finding of prisoners using taxpayer funds was a political problem. If the public or his opponents learned that his prized program was being used by “criminals,” it could cost him the election. The governor directed his staff to keep the issue quiet. After Miller’s narrow electoral victory – 51% to 49% – his staff issued new administrative regulations in spring 1995 that stopped the flow of HOPE money to students in prison. As a result, incarcerated students are not eligible for any of the scholarships administered by the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

Indiana shuts prisoners out

Similarly, in 2011 the state of Indiana changed its laws to prevent incarcerated people from receiving the Frank O’Bannon Grant, the state’s largest need-based financial aid program. The program awarded more than $178.6 million in fiscal year 2018.