In late July, nearly 21 years after the Higher Education Act prevented prisoners from receiving any form of federal aid for a college education, President Barack Obama announced that he is now working with the Department of Education toward a trial, or “pilot” program, that will allow certain prisoners to receive financial assistance from the government.
No official program can be put into action without the approval of Congress, but the temporary pilot program is possible due to a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that allows for the testing and experimentation of how effective a temporary change to the distribution rules of federal aid can be.
The major concern about this program is, of course, whether it is fair to those college students who have never committed any type of crime. Before jumping to extreme conclusions, let’s take a look at the specifics.
Sure, it may seem unfair that someone who has broken a law is going to receive federal student aid, when you as a student have not committed any type of illegal act. However, it can be argued that prison is a punishment system for crimes and that rehabilitating prisoners and providing them with education could have a positive effect on how they perform as a part of society after they are released.
The temporary program will only last five years and is created for inmates who are eligible for release within the next five years. It is absolutely essential to recognize and understand that the overall goal of this program is to provide these prisoners with the skills and knowledge that they need in order to successfully enter back into society, become an effective part of the community and prevent any future association with crime.
Look at it this way: would you want recently released inmates to have no newly acquired insight on society or education and, in some cases, end up back in a cell or would you rather that they be at least minimally educated and attempting to be a useful part of society?
Still, it may be hard for a student who has never committed a crime to see eye-to-eye with the system. It has been stated by Ted Mitchell, a member of the Department of Education, that the issuing of federal aid to inmates will “not compromise or displace any Pell Grant eligibility for any other populations.” In essence, this assurance should set current college students at ease.
Serving time in prison is a rightful payment for crimes and, depending on the severity of the crime and the inmate’s status, once said payment is rightfully served, or is being rightfully served, he or she should not be denied the right to an education.
Therefore, prisoners should have the opportunity to apply for and receive federal assistance to pay for an education.
Denying financial assistance to those who actually want to become educated and learn how to perform more efficiently in our society is technically unconstitutional in itself. The U.S. prides itself on freedom; let’s focus on keeping it that way and bettering our society.