prison coders
Learning to code from a jail cell
02:31 - Source: CNNMoney

Editor’s Note: Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former Florida education commissioner and Virginia secretary of education. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.

Story highlights

Lift ban on financial aid for the incarcerated who want to attend college, writers say

Education is key to preventing ex-prisoners from returning to crime, they say

CNN  — 

Every year, more than 650,000 men and women leave prison and return home to communities across America. They are often released with little more than some spare change, a bus ticket and a criminal record that bars access to some of their most basic rights and privileges.

Facing deep social stigma, many returning citizens feel as though they have left the grips of a physical prison only to find themselves engulfed in a new, social prison. It is tragic but not surprising that 50% to 75% of all people who return home from prison end up incarcerated again within five years.

Van Jones
Gerard Robinson

In today’s knowledge economy, higher education is one of the first rungs on the ladder to economic freedom and social mobility. Too many formerly incarcerated Americans never climb this ladder – or reach for it at all.

The lack of high-quality education and job training options for people in prison have led to the vast majority being woefully underprepared to re-enter society. Their skill gaps make our communities less safe – and families less stable – since without better options, many will return to the lifestyles that got them into trouble in the first place.

It is also shameful that in many communities across America, too many young people are more likely to know someone living in prison than living on a college campus.

We must act urgently to increase opportunities for education, workforce skills, entrepreneurship and rehabilitation for individuals who are incarcerated. By doing so we can work aggressively to prevent young people from going down the wrong path again, keeping them out of prison by providing access to college rather than a slippery slope to prison.

First, we need to lift the ban on access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. This approach provides motivated individuals an opportunity to turn their lives around. When the Pell Grant program began, all qualifying students including the incarcerated were eligible to receive small amounts of federal funding to help pay for college tuition.

Beginning with the enactment of the 1994 crime bill, incarcerated individuals were excluded from receiving federal funds. As a result, nearly 350 in-prison college programs across the country disintegrated.

In 2015, the Second Chance Pell pilot program was announced, which has already helped 12,000 incarcerated individuals receive grants to access higher education in state and federal facilities across the country. We should expand this pilot program, or make it permanent.

Second, we should expand access to all federal student loan programs for incarcerated juveniles and adults. Some believe this approach makes fiscal sense and will help make our streets safer and economy more prosperous. For example, a study from the RAND Corp. showed that a $1 investment in education yields $4 to $5 in public safety cost-savings. It also found that individuals who received education while behind bars were 43% less likely to end up back in prison and 13% more likely to obtain employment following their release.

Third, we must ensure that individuals convicted of drug-related crimes are not barred from financial aid or federal student loans if they choose to pursue a college degree. It is counterproductive to lock individuals out of opportunity for higher learning after they have paid their debt to society, especially when there has been a growing, bipartisan movement to ensure that individuals convicted of drug crimes receive access to treatment and rehabilitation, moving them toward a path to success. It is past time.

These recommendations are highlighted in a new campaign by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, #CollegeNotPrison. They have also been endorsed by #cut50, the national bipartisan criminal justice reform organization founded by Van.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Ninety-five percent of people behind bars today will eventually return back to their communities. Our challenge is to ensure they return with skills that make them less likely to commit future crimes. If we successfully provide access to affordable, high-quality education options for justice-involved individuals, we will be able to better address incarceration that bars too many Americans from opportunity through higher education.

    We need to stop wasting genius in America and start opening doors to opportunity.