By Elizabeth Douglas
Editors’ note: This piece contains both a powerful first-person narrative and important information about the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, H.R. 2168 in the House and S.1074 in the Senate, which could provide funding for education for literally hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Please read to the end to find out how you can support this important legislation.
Last week, the Education-Buster-in-Chief announced that he wanted to “redirect $1.9 billion from a Pell Grant surplus to jumpstart other projects, primarily a NASA initiative to put astronauts back on the moon.” Pell Grants, in brief, are federal government aid for students who need financial assistance for college; and this budget request is not the first time Trump has tried to take away money from poor kids who rely on Pell Grants.
Poor kids like me. I was able to start my college career in large part because of the Pell Grant. The Bachelor’s degree that was mostly Pell Grant-funded provided the path to get my Master’s Degree, and this changed my life. I reflect back on the young woman I was then, determined to get an education, but with no viable means or way to get one. I was incredibly poor, despite 50-60 hour workweeks cobbled together from two different jobs. I had no family support: I left home the day I turned 18 due to several years of abuse from my parents, and became estranged from them for many years. No spousal support, either: I married far too early to someone who was essentially a leech, financially, emotionally, and physically (we later divorced). I was struggling to survive, and I was alone in this struggle.
I decided that I could only afford to take one year between high school and college to save up what little I could to make my education a reality. But that little didn’t cover it, so I applied for the Pell Grant – and got it. I still remember that moment I received my award letter as transcendently joyful and overwhelming. I shed many happy tears. I decided to enter the lowest cost but highest quality college that was close to where I lived; I couldn’t afford to move, and couldn’t afford more than two college application fees. I was lucky enough to be living close to a Junior College with ties to William and Mary in Virginia. The Pell Grant covered both my tuition – a steal at about $900 a semester back in the old-time days of early 2000 – and books for the year. I still had to work insane work hours just to live, but at least I didn’t have to worry about being unable to afford college.
My story is not so different from the millions of students (around 7.1 million, based on the data from 2016-2017) who now receive the Pell Grant. Except now, these students are facing more hurdles, such as the much wider gap between the cost of tuition and the limits of the Federal Pell Grant, as you can see from the chart below from The Pell Institute’s report Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2018 Historical Trend Report. The cap for the 2019–20 award year is a very low $6,195, over fifteen thousand dollars below the average cost of full-time college enrollment – and as the graph shows, the average Pell award is only $3,740, and is likely to stay, thousands below even that low grant cap amount.
Thankfully, as in previous years, Congress rejected Trump’s moonshot heist by not giving him one cent of Pell Grant funds. Despite that win, there is an urgent need to protect Pell Grant recipients, and specifically one group of Pell Grant recipients that does not get enough attention: incarcerated individuals. There are no benevolent billionaires that are going to come to their rescue a la Robert F. Smith; no fairy godfather or godmother is stepping up to pay for their education. Yet getting a degree with the assistance of the Pell Grant is an essential way to change the lives of people behind bars and give them the opportunity to succeed and obtain employment post-release (see this Rand report for more details). According to the Department of Education, a recent study by the Vera Institute showed that “incarcerated individuals who participate in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not.”
On May 21, 2019, Betsy DeVos approved the expansion of the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Experiment (formally called the Second Chance Pell Pilot), allowing “up to 12,000 incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants in order to pursue a degree or credential.” But this is only a bandaid measure to right the wrongs of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), a provision of which revoked Pell Grant funding “to any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution.” Studies show that “if the ban on federal financial aid for inmates were lifted, about 463,000 prisoners would be eligible for a Pell Grant.”
Now, the bicameral and bipartisan Restoring Education and Learning Act (the REAL Act of 2019), H.R. 2168 in the House and S.1074 in the Senate, paves the way for exactly that. The House bill is already cosponsored by our own Representative Barbara Lee, and has a strong chance of succeeding since, as this NPR article points out, we are seeing a trend toward legislation that rejects the early 90s “tough on crime” era that led to prisoners’ rights to education being diminished in the first place. Our other Members of Congress haven’t signed on yet. If you want to help incarcerated individuals get an education, tell them: Get REAL, co-sponsor and support the REAL Act!
What you can do:
- If your representative is Barbara Lee (email; 510-763-0370), thank her for cosponsoring H.R. 2168 – REAL Act of 2019.
- If your representative is Eric Swalwell (email; 510-370-3322) or Mark DeSaulnier (email; 510-620-1000), ask them to cosponsor H.R. 2168 – REAL Act of 2019, and support equity in Pell Grant funding for incarcerated individuals.
- Ask Senators Feinstein and Harris to cosponsor S. 1074 – REAL Act of 2019, and support equity in Pell Grant funding for incarcerated individuals.
Image: Equity Indicator graphic
Elizabeth Douglas is a mom, runner, and activist from Alameda. She is also a Climate Reality Leader (Seattle 2017) with a strong interest in protecting our ocean and corals.