Don’t let incarceration block access to Pell Grant

As an educator, I have often witnessed passionate, intelligent and capable people discouraged from furthering their education due to their criminal justice involvement. Upon entering a federal prison camp in West Virginia, I found most of the other women there did not have the opportunity to obtain a degree prior to incarceration. However, many of them, like many incarcerated people across the country, sought to pursue higher education to secure new opportunities upon release. Unfortunately, those who seek an education while incarcerated are often deprived of the resources to achieve their goals.

That’s because students who are incarcerated largely do not have access to a federal Pell Grant to help fund their education. Although incarcerated people had been awarded Pell grants for nearly four decades prior, this access was revoked in 1994 under the infamous Omnibus Crime Bill. As a result, the number of educational programs available in prisons significantly decreased — from more than 350 programs in 1990 to only 12 in 2005.

Access to higher education for both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals is essential because everyone deserves the opportunity to become productive members of society, regardless of their past. In the state of Ohio, 78,000 people are currently incarcerated, and last year alone 22,617 people were released. We must ensure that each and every person returning home is met with opportunities, rather than obstacles, so that they can provide for themselves and their families and invest in their communities. Increasing access to higher education is the path to achieve that outcome.

In 2016, Ashland University was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which allows students who are incarcerated to receive Pell grants to fund their education. The school expanded its longstanding prison education program to correctional facilities across several states, including six facilities in Ohio. Since then, more than 400 incarcerated students have graduated from Ashland with associate and bachelor’s degrees. This demonstrates not only that people who are incarcerated value education and learning, but also that they are successful when given the opportunity to pursue their college and career goals.

In order to ensure that currently and formerly incarcerated people across the U.S. are able to pursue higher education without facing endless barriers and limitations, we must restore Pell Grant eligibility to all, regardless of sentence length or conviction type. We also must remove Question 23 from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and criminal-history questions from college admissions applications. Increasing access to higher education for all would improve employment rates, reduce recidivism and boost the economy. This not only benefits those formerly and currently incarcerated, but all of us, as it would promote success, safety and security in all of our lives and communities.

I call on Ohio’s congressional representatives and Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati and all members of Congress to act on these issues now by passing legislation that restores Pell Grant eligibility to all and strikes criminal history questions from the FAFSA and college admissions applications.

Now is the time to give those formerly and currently incarcerated a fair chance to achieve their goals and aspirations so that we can build a better future for everyone.

As reported by the Columbus Dispatch

Posted Sep 19, 2019.

Zaria Davis is a resident of Cincinnati and an advocate for local and state criminal justice reform. She is the owner of New Direction Coaching & Consulting, LLC, a policy specialist at Operation Restoration, a member of the Unlock Higher Ed Coalition and the facilitator and mentor coordinator for the Prison to Professional program. She was charged and convicted of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, which resulted in her incarceration.

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