Cornell University’s Prison Education Program is very selective. Interested inmates take a test, and only about 10 percent get in. The program has to stay small because its budget comes only from donations.
Nearly all of the country’s prison education runs this way: on a small scale, with private money. That hasn’t always been true. Cornell program director Rob Scott says in the ‘80s and early 90s, prison education was widespread, and inmates paid tuition to fund it. Federal Pell Grants kept the programs affordable. Then in the mid-90s, the government closed off those grants.
“The result of that was almost all those programs disappeared overnight,” Scott said. “They required the tuition dollars to fund the programs.”
For decades, prison inmates have been barred from Pell Grants – federal money that helps low-income students go to college. But last week President Obama announced a trial program that would open the grants to inmates in a small number of prisons.
Scott says without federal support, prison education can’t rely on inmates to cover its costs. “People who are in prison don’t have the type of money that it takes to pay for college tuition,” he said. “One of the driving factors of what gets you incarcerated is the lack of access to capital resources.”
Scott also says Obama’s announcement signals a shift in the country’s attitude toward criminal justice. Republicans and Democrats are both talking about reform. Soon, more of the nation’s growing prison population may be able to get a federally-supported education.