WASHINGTON, D.C. — So-called “Second Chance” Pell Grants, an experimental program to fund college educations for inmates and in which two Catholic institutions have been participating, are getting an expanded boost toward permanence.

This summer, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called for the program, in place since 2016, to be made permanent.

On Sept. 30 she endorsed the effort by Prison Fellowship, an evangelical prison ministry, to ask legislators to vote for its expansion. So far, the legislation has lacked sufficient bipartisan support.

DeVos appeared at Prison Fellowship’s Justice Declaration Symposium at the Museum of the Bible.

The ban on inmates receiving Pell Grants, which are used for students with extreme financial need, was put in place in 1994 crime legislation. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance program, which received its initial funding the following year. Currently, 67 colleges and universities are participating.

“Education is the ticket to a good future for just about anyone and everyone,” DeVos said. “We should be embracing these opportunities. We all make mistakes, and we all need the chance to be redeemed.”

Villanova University in Pennsylvania and Holy Cross College in Indiana, with the collaboration of the University of Notre Dame, are the Catholic institutions that are participating.

Villanova, which has had an inmate education program since 1972 and found a way to underwrite it even after the Pell Grants dried up, partners with the state correctional institution in Graterford, the largest maximum-security prison in the state.

Holy Cross sponsors the Moreau College Initiative for Men at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility. Professors from both Holy Cross and Notre Dame teach there, and Holy Cross confers the degrees.

That program continues to expand, with admissions at four correctional facilities this summer, and hopes for almost 100 students at Westville by next year, according to information provided by the college.

A January report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality concluded that “expanding access to postsecondary education in prison reduces recidivism rates, helps to improve public safety, and cuts prison costs.”

Restoring access to Pell Grants funding for postsecondary education for prisoners, further “would increase (state) employment rates among formerly incarcerated people across the United States” by nearly 10 percent.

DeVos said, though, that she remains suspicious of government-only assistance.

“I am one that believes that the church and private-sector organizations are, by definition, the best solutions,” she explained. “The church, writ large, and our local churches really do very often have the best methods … to form relationships with those who are behind bars.”

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