New guidelines extend Pell Grants to incarcerated juveniles

Government says education is 'one of the most effective crime prevention tools'

The Obama administration released new guidance for Pell Grants on Monday, clarifying that juveniles held in correctional facilities are eligible to receive federal aid through the program.

The new guidelines resolve an old question: whether a 1994 law that prohibited inmates at federal and state facilities from receiving the grants extended to juveniles.

While there are nearly 60,000 young people in detention facilities, very few are eligible under the revised rules because most lack a high school diploma or GED. The government estimates 4,000 young people could benefit from the changes.

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In a letter to chief state school officers and attorneys general, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder said education was "one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have."

A step forward

David Domenici, director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, praised the new rules, saying they would "jump start" access to higher education for incarcerated youth.

Currently, there are few higher education opportunities for young people in detention facilities. "There are few places in the country where a community college professor comes in and teaches a few classes," says Domenici, "but the feds just took a big encumbrance off the table” by making Pell funding available for more programs.

Most juvenile detention facilities provide GED courses and testing, but postsecondary and vocational training are rare—only a third make such programs available, according to federal data.

Some may question whether federal dollars should support programs that benefit people with criminal records, but Holder and Duncan noted in their statement that inmates who participated in higher education programs were half as likely to return to jail—saving not only lives, but money. The average per-year cost of incarcerating a juvenile is $88,000.

Juveniles and other prisoners are still ineligible for federal student loans under the revised guidelines (Department of Education release, 12/8; Stratford, Insider Higher Ed, 12/9).

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