In early November the nation’s Promise programs will convene in Kalamazoo, Mich., for PromiseNet 2015 and among the events will be a 10th anniversary celebration gala of the ground-breaking Kalamazoo Promise.
But early November will also be the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which ushered in a national promise in the form of the forerunner to what would become known as the Pell Grant. That program — named for the late Claiborne Pell, a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island — has been a major factor in the ability of students from lower-income households to attend and graduate from college.
Yet for the last 20 years the most at-risk haven’t been eligible to tap into the funds. The Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act passed by Congress in 1994 wiped out Pell Grants for the incarcerated. The early 1990s saw new spikes in violent crime in the U.S. and the comprehensive act, signed into law by Bill Clinton, was a “get-tough-on-crime” reaction.
Vivian Nixon and Glenn Martin recently co-authored a plea for the Promise of Pell in our prison system. Published on the website of the Department of Education, Nixon and Martin wrote, “This research clearly demonstrates that access to higher education is actually a boon for public safety; it drives down recidivism rates, improves the lives of incarcerated students and returning citizens, and improves the lives of their families and communities.”
In an age when the U.S. has more jails and prisons than degree-granting colleges and universities, this deserves the attention of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All across the South, more people live behind bars than on campuses.
The Pell Grant — established to provide an opportunity — has made the country a better place. A promise provides greater outcomes than a penalty.