Pell Grants for Prisoners: What Investment, What Return?

Pell Grants for Prisoners: What Investment, What Return?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the Second Chance Pell Pilot program that would provide Pell Grants for college study for some federal inmates. The pilot program is controversial on many levels. One particular issue is that it would involve taxpayer dollars going to provide prison inmates with access to a college education that many of those taxpayers (not to mention many other law-abiding citizens who do not pay any federal income tax because their income is too low) cannot afford for themselves or their children.

One might reasonably ask, how much of a difference could such a program make?

If a picture can be worth a thousand words, this graph certainly is.

Actually, it’s worth thousands . . . of dollars:

chart 8.6.15













Taken from David Leonhardt, Is College Worh It? Clearly, New Data Says. New York Times 5/27/2014

The graph compares the average hourly pay of those with some college and those with four-year college degrees (but without advanced degrees) to those with high school diplomas, but without any college. If the average hourly wage in a given year for one of the groups was the same as that for people with just a high school diploma, the point on the graph for that group for that year would be at 1.0 on the Y-axis.

The graph reveals two things. One, having some exposure to college, without securing a degree, doesn’t help much, but it does help. The average hourly wage of an individual with some college but no degree has been consistently about 10% higher than someone with just a high school diploma since the 1970s. In 2013, the average hourly wage of a high school graduate without any additional education was $16.20/hour (please remember that this is not the average of a newly graduated individual; this includes recent grads and everyone else, including 60-somethings with 40+ years on the job). The average for someone with a little college, but no degree, would be $17.82/hour.  That’s over $3000 additional income per year, assuming 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Not huge, but definitely meaningful. And that $3000+ differential would repeat every year, in theory. That’s a lot over a lifetime of work.

But it’s nothing compared to the difference just a bachelor’s degree makes . . . an average hourly wage of $29.46 in 2013, roughly 80% more income than the average with just a high school diploma.

Of course, these are averages. Lots of individuals will make less, or more, than the average for their group. Averages also are vulnerable to extreme values in one direction or the other. With wages, the extreme values are on the high end. If there are individuals (and there are) with only a high school diploma or only a four-year college degree who are making millions, their hourly wage skews the average high. By comparison, the unemployed high school or college graduate making zero income can only skew the distribution a little.

It also is true that these analyses are not causal. Is it the four-year college degree, or the family that raised that college graduate, or the neighborhood from which she came, or the high school he attended, that is the real cause of the average difference?

But taking all of those considerations into account, it still seems almost certain that the opportunity to take college courses has economic value, and the completion of a bachelor’s degree considerable economic value.

Conclusion: the battle over prison Pell Grants is not just about a ‘liberal’ rehabilitative view or a ‘conservative’ punitive view of how to treat those who break the social contract. It also is about the costs of crime to society as a whole, victims and taxpayers alike.

Do we want to increase the odds that inmates, once they’ve paid their debt to society, can become contributing members of that society, earning a good income by legitimate means, even paying taxes?

Or do we want to leave them, as many of them are, relatively ill-prepared for legitimate, productive work and unlikely, without extraordinary effort, to make that meaningful contribution?

That’s one core question at the heart of this debate . . . one that often gets missed in the vitriole about punishment and the pleadings for second chances.

The pilot program is designed to test the proposition that this investment (relatively small, compared to the cost to society of crime and incarceration) might reduce the probability of recidivism by creating paths to legitimate, productive employment at a decent wage. If it works some percentage of the time (exactly what percentage is unclear), then one need not be particularly compassionate toward ex-cons to support such an investment. Because the return on the investment to taxpayers will be much greater than the cost.

Isn’t that one of the fundamental criteria for identifying a good public policy?