Under a ban tucked into the 1994 crime bill, prisoners were ineligible for Pell grants, the largest postsecondary federal aid program for low-income undergraduates, but the Second Chance initiative partly lifted that. The 1994 bill, signed by President Bill Clinton and championed by heavyweight Democrats like Joseph R. Biden Jr., a senator at the time, is roiling politics anew. It has thrown Mr. Biden on the defensive as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination and given Mr. Trump an unlikely appeal to black voters.
But it was a Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a senator of Texas, who proposed broadening an existing restriction on Pell grants for prisoners serving life sentences or on death row to all prisoners, no matter their offenses. After the law was signed, a robust prison education system collapsed almost overnight.
Lawmakers are seeking ways to restore Pell eligibility for prisoners, including reversing the ban in a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
“This issue is ripe in American politics for two reasons,” said Gerard Robinson, the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, who has studied prison education. “The millennials see this as a civil rights issue for their generation,” he said, and older generations see it as recompense for “the role they played in the war on drugs dating back to the 1970s up through the crime bill.”
The Obama administration used its experimental authority to introduce Second Chance Pell in 2015 as a pilot that unlocked Pell grants for Mr. Smith and 12,000 other eligible inmates, allowing them to pursue college coursework. The Goucher Prison Education Partnership, which had operated since 2012 with private donations, was among 67 colleges chosen to participate.
“Earning a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated can be life-changing,” said Amy Roza, director of the Goucher prison partnership. “There is something remarkable about having an issue, in 2019, where people in the current White House, Congress, advocates with a variety of perspectives all believe in the value of this.”