Education Dept. official says Second Chance Pell in prisons is ‘Illegal’ but worth fighting for

Diane Auer Jones
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of State Diane Auer Jones speaks at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities Presidents Conference in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 29, 2020. |

WASHINGTON — The Department of Education is looking to expand its experimental Second Chance Pell initiative to bring college programs to more prisons nationwide but is butting heads with the White House Office of Management and Budget over funding, an official said Thursday. 

Dianne Auer Jones, the principal deputy undersecretary of education, spoke on the state of higher education before dozens of college presidents and administrators at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities annual presidents conference at the Westin City Center. 

Jones updated the gathering on the status of the second cohort of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Site Initiative. Since its launch it 2016, the initiative has helped bring college programs to as many as 12,000 incarcerated individuals nationwide. 

With 180 member schools across the globe, CCCU has 13 institutions that have participated in the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative since it was launched by the Obama administration. 

“Second Chance Pell is an experiment that we think is incredibly important,” Jones said. “It is probably also illegal.”

“But the prior administration started it and we have a lot more flexibility,” she continued. “One of the things we are not allowed to do with experimental sites is changing eligibility requirements. So technically, it is not a legal experiment. But Congress likes it and the last administration started it and we said, ‘What the heck, we’ll join the club.’" 

The Second Chance Pell initiative essentially uses the authority of the Experimental Sites Initiative of the Higher Education Act to circumvent a 1994 law passed by Congress banning those in prison from receiving Pell Grants. 

Over 60 colleges and institutions participated in the first cohort of Second Chance Pell. Last year, the department announced that it would allow new cohorts of colleges and universities to apply for the initiative.

Jones told the administrators that the department will soon release the names of schools selected to participate in the second cohort of the experimental site initiative. She said that the agency has received over 130 applications so far. 

“Our biggest obstacle there is we have to get a budget number from the Office of Management and Budget,” Jones explained. “There is a cost associated with the new cohort of Second Chance Pell because it allows additional students to participate and get a Pell Grant. There is a cost associated.”

But Jones stressed that even though President Trump and senior administration officials believe Second Chance Pell is a “really important program,” there are “some folks at OMB that are making it clear that they don’t allow us to use budget.” 

“So we are having that fight,” Jones said. “I’ll just share that with you and you can do with it what you will. But we want people to understand that we are ready to go and we want a large cohort to enter the experiment. But OMB is the one that will determine how many institutions we can allow to participate.”

There is a push by the CCCU and criminal justice reform groups like Prison Fellowship that are advocating for legislation or a provision to be passed in Congress that would reopen Pell Grants for prisoners. 

“We do think the eligibility requirement should be changed,” Jones said. 

Advocates for Second Chance Pell contend that increasing access to education in prison will help reduce recidivism.  

The Education Department will soon release its report on the first cohort of Second Chance Pell. Jones stressed that it's too early to know whether the Second Chance Pell initiative is leading to a reduction in recidivism. 

“I would not call it a scientifically robust report,” Jones admitted. “We just don’t have enough data that will allow us to put out a report that says that ‘This is what we know as a result of the experiment.’ We don’t know enough yet.”

Jones said that the report will largely show anecdotal information about the challenges of running college programs in prison. 

“We learned that sometimes prisons are going to update their computer networks [but then] they shut them down. So for a year there are no computers on-site,” Jones detailed. “What do you do about that?”

Another struggle the department noticed, she said, is difficulty in keeping tabs on students as they get transferred between prisons or released. 

“We learned that all those schools in the experiment have to provide the outcomes of those students. If they are moved to a different correctional facility, you don’t know what happens to them,” Jones explained. “As they graduate, they may not know what happens to them and you certainly don’t have access to information about recidivism.”

The Education Department is working to figure out how to best support its partners so that the department can obtain those data sets without being a burden on institutions, Jones said. 

“I would not say that we have conclusive data,” she relayed. “And we certainly haven’t had the experiment going long enough to know if it has had an impact on recidivism. We think it will but we just can’t say that yet.”

Representatives from over 85 institutions in 31 states and nine countries attended the 2020 CCCU Presidents Conference. 

“If you think about what kind of person you want to have come out of prison, you want a person equipped because that is good for everybody — good for the prisoners, good for the caretakers and good for us,” CCCU President Shirley Hoogstra told The Christian Post. 

Although some were concerned that Second Chance Pell could be “abused” by institutions, Hoogstra assured that the initiative has not been abused. 

“In fact, incarcerated persons are getting educated and having some increased success,” Hoogstra said. 

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