Tennessee has been praised for its free college initiatives for graduating high school seniors and adults. But, there's one part of the population that's being left out — inmates. Now state leaders are being called on to expand state scholarships for this group.
In 1994, the federal government banned inmates from receiving the Pell Grant — one of the main forms of financial aid. That has made it difficult for this population to earn a degree, because incarcerated individuals still have to pay tuition.
And, Molly Lasagna, the director of an organization that funds degrees for prisoners, says Tennessee’s free college initiatives aren’t offered to people behind bars either.
"Tennessee Reconnect is considered a last-dollar scholarship. That means it’s only available to folks that have gone through other avenues to get aid. And the big one is Pell," she said.
According to a new report from the Tennessee Educational Equality Coalition, an education advocacy group, close to 25,000 people in the state are incarcerated. Fewer than 600 — or 2 percent — are enrolled in some form of college.
Edward Welch, the Department of Correction's assisstant commissioner of rehabilitative services, said at a recent panel discussion in Nashville that he wants to push that number to 10 percent. He agrees there’s a need for more assistance for prison education from the state.
"We need collaborative research and action dialogue throughout Tennessee to say what is a realistic measurable outcome for our current incarcerated population and how can they be successful," said Welch.
The Tennessee Educational Equality Coalition provided several recommendations for the state in its report. Among others, the group suggests leaders should actively incorporate inmates into its Drive to 55 goals, which aim to have 55 percent of the state's population earn a degree by 2025.
Welch says he’s hopeful the state’s new governor will be open to giving inmates more educational aid.
Gov.-elect Bill Lee has said throughout his campaign he wants to reduce the state’s recidivism rate and focus on vocational training.