The First Step Act signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 21, 2018, left out a very important component of criminal justice reform. The act authorized $250 million over five years for the development and expansion of skill-building and vocational education classes to help prisoners become better prepared to enter the workforce after release. However, First Step contains nothing to help current and former inmates access the U.S. Department of Education’s student loan and Pell Grant programs to help them obtain college degrees. This sends a mixed message about higher education’s part in rehabilitative justice, and it increases long-term costs to taxpayers.

The current Higher Education Act and U.S. Department of Education regulations prohibit prisoners from accessing key federal student aid programs. Eliminating Pell Grant eligibility was part of a broad federal crackdown on crime in 1994. In 2015, the Obama administration took a first step toward reversing this ban by creating a Second Chance pilot program offering limited access to Pell Grants through 64 participating colleges.

In a conference held at the Vera Institute on July 15, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Second Chance program representatives that she supports the program and hopes Congress will amend current legislation to restore Pell Grant eligibility to the incarcerated. “It’s Congress’s chance to act and do its job to make sure to extend this opportunity in a very sustainable and predictable way to many people across our country,” asserted DeVos. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Education Committee, has indicated support for repealing the 1994 ban in the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.