Perhaps one of the most talked about aspects of getting a college education is the financial part of it. How are you going to pay for it? How much student loan debt can you take on? Can you balance class work with working jobs that you need in order to pay for school? These are the questions bothering households across America as families prepare to send their high school graduates off to college. Many of these students were athletes, presidents or leaders of clubs, team captains, frequent volunteers, straight-A students and part time employees during their high school careers. Somehow, they managed to do it all.

Yet, so many of these kids don’t get any financial aid to help them pay for school. They poured their heart into their work and extracurricular activities only to be told that they cannot receive any assistance for funding their education. Many of the same kids who spent countless hours volunteering in their communities, studying to get perfect grades and always acting as role models for their peers are forced to take on thousands of dollars of debt in return for all of their hard work and contributions. Others, however, chose to take a different route, but still end up getting college educations. Only these people get help, and lots of it. The people I am referring to are prisoners who are given federal grants to take college classes or have the opportunity to take college classes for free while serving their sentences. Should prisoners receive college degrees for free at the expense of taxpayers?

In recent decades, a few privately funded programs who have provided college courses to inmates in prisons across the nation free of charge have been successful. For example, Bard, an elite private college in New York state, offered liberal arts courses to inmates convicted of violent crimes at a maximum-security prison, free of charge. However, these inmates aren’t taking vocational classes. Instead, they study subjects such as sociology, English and philosophy. Programs similar to this one, but funded by taxpayer dollars, used to be common across the United States until Congress cut federal funding for prison education programs in 1994 because of moral conflicts. They felt that ultimately, yes, education is the pathway to a better life. However, these prisoners are still people who behaved in a way that society deemed as unacceptable, and so they were sent to prison to be punished. Congress felt that education and punishment should not overlap, since kids who have never committed crimes already can’t afford to go to college, and so the programs were discontinued. 

However, recently, the Obama administration started to bring some taxpayer funded programs back to prisons. In June of 2016, the Obama administration announced that 67 colleges and universities, including Bard, were selected to offer Pell grants to incarcerated students through a program called Second Chance Pell. The program enrolled 12,000 prisoners who are likely to be released within the next five years at over 100 correctional institutions in the nation. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez pushed for the program because he claimed that many of the inmates who participate in this program never really had a fair first chance. However, committing a crime that places one in prison is undoubtedly a conscious choice. By making that choice, inmates are choosing to limit their own opportunities and freedoms. The purpose of prison is to discourage citizens from committing crimes through punishment. It is designed to make criminal behavior “less attractive and more risky.” 

Why would taxpayers want to reward prisoners with free education on top of providing them with free meals, counseling, housing and medical care? Thousands of law abiding citizens already can’t afford the high costs of getting a college education without plunging themselves into debt. Paying for college is anything but easy. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of tuition has increased by 63 percent since 2006. But that doesn’t include other costs such as textbooks, whose prices increased by 88 percent over that same period while miscellaneous expenses increased by 21 percent On top of that, the average 2016 college graduate owes about $37,172 in student loan debt, which is up 6 percent just from last year. Honest Americans spend nearly every day working their hardest and trying their best to afford the costs of higher education while prisoners are getting the same education for free. 

Some might justify giving prisoners free college degrees by stating that it provides them with job skills, which in turn reduces the number of those prisoners who end up back in prison — therefore saving taxpayers' money. As a nation, one of our core values is second chances. But, maybe if we provided the necessary educational and job skill services beforehand, many inmates never would have ended up in jail in the first place. After all, there is a strong link between crime and poverty and unemployment due to a lack of education. If we work together as a nation, we can provide our citizens with affordable education long before the frustration of poverty forces some citizens to turn to crime. By doing so, we can cut the cost of supporting numerous inmates entirely while providing opportunities for our law-abiding citizens and reducing the national student loan debt all at the same time. 

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