College Students Behind Bars

02/17/2016 02:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

College is more expensive than buying a new Mustang every year for four years. As a student in the midst of finishing my bachelors' degree, I cannot express how incredibly thankful I am for Federal Student Aid; attending school at a private university in New York city is the epitome of over-the-top college expense. My tuition alone is $40,400. My university, The New School, has generously granted me $26,100 in scholarships, but I'm only able to take out so many federal loans to make up for the gap. As someone who pays for her own tuition, the Federal Pell Grant program is the five thousand dollar difference that makes my education possible. This is true for many self-funding students; I am one of millions of students who truly could not be in college if it weren't for the funding provided by my university and FAFSA.

The cost of college is incredibly high, generally averaging $22,958 per year at a public four-year university. Political debates from all points of view emphasize the importance of an affordable education. In the midst of these debates, however, a significant portion of the population of American young people in desperate need of an education is completely ruled out of the conversation: student prisoners.

For many young adults in prison an education is nearly impossible to attain because existing policies prevent prisoners from being eligible for financial aid, but some programs are being launched to fix this dire situation. The Newark State Prison recently implemented something called a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program; this will provide financial aid to student prisoners. While the program just began, it is causing a ripple in policy discussion. As of now, an incarcerated student in a federal or state prison is not eligible for federal student loans, or Federal Pell Grants. Nor is he or she able to get federal work-study funding, or any other form of federal education funding.

In fact, the Restoring Education And Learning Act of 2015, was introduced this past summer, does exactly that. The Act would amend the Higher Education Act by removing title four, which prohibits prisoners from being eligible for financial student aid.

Opponents of the bill believe that federal grant programs are privileges, to which criminals have waved goodbye upon incarceration. From their perspective it feels wrong to give money to imprisoned students when so many non-imprisoned students fail to qualify for financial aid as it is, but while it may seem counter-intuitive to provide college funding to someone being punished by the prison system, this funding would actually be a more cost-effective solution in the long run, and actually benefit society.

The job market is difficult for all American young people, and stats show that the higher the educational level of an individual, the less likely he or she is to become unemployed. The value of education in relation to employment is especially important to people in the prison system, because it is even more difficult for them to find jobs after establishing criminal records. When prisoners are released into the "real world" it's much easier for them to adjust to life outside by getting jobs, but often they can't.

It's not surprising then, given their lack of educational opportunities, that about two out of three inmates sadly return to prison within three years of having been released; this recidivism is expensive, and the average inmate costs about $31,000 per year. Compare this figure to the cost of a Pell Grant, for which the highest award is only $5,775 per school year. If we can reduce the number of people returning to prison by paying for their education when they're in financial need, we can reduce the number of people for whom taxpayers are paying far more to re-incarcerate. Once a freed inmate gets a job, he or she starts contributing to everyone's tax revenue. This "virtuous cycle" will help save the state a lot of money in the long run -- even though it will drain profits from those who benefit from building and filling the prison system.

This is about more than just money, however; this is about rebuilding former criminals into functioning members of a better society. After all, isn't that what prisons are supposed to do? Studies show that those who have had a higher education are more likely than their peers to do volunteer work, vote and donate blood, among other contributions. Educating prisons is far better solution to social ills than throwing people into prisons for merely punitive. By helping to fund college education for student prisoners, we'd be investing into socially engaged citizens.

Thus programs such as the Second Change Pell Pilot Program are an amazing first step at accomplishing these goals; Pell Grants, and other forms of federal funding need to be available to students regardless of their criminal status. We can redeem young lives by starting with changes to the Federal student aid program. We need to be helping prisoners get back on their feet, reducing spending by decreasing recidivism, and building more engaged members of society out of former criminals. The Restoring Education and Learning act does all of this. There are so many young people in prison due to minor misdemeanors, and with the given inequalities the least we can do is offer them a second chance.