Lamar state College-Port Arthur to offer inmate degrees

July 1, 2016 GMT

Lamar State College-Port Arthur has been selected to participate in a federal pilot program to expand prison inmates’ access to college degrees, signaling growth for a long-running program as the government pays for well-behaved prisoners to obtain two-year degrees in classes like automotive mechanics.

The U.S. Department of Education pilot program will make Pell grants available to inmates for the first time in decades.

It aims to cut into recidivism, lower prison costs and give 12,000 inmates access to a certificate or degree in a nation that has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

LSC-PA is the only local college participating in the pilot and among 13 in Texas and 68 across the U.S. Elsewhere, certificates and two-year and four-year degrees will be offered through the program.

LSC-PA faculty will teach inmates at low- and medium-security federal units and the state prison in greater Beaumont. They offer associate’s degrees in automotive mechanics, heating and air conditioning, applied science and academic studies, said Gary Stretcher, the school’s vice president for academic affairs.

The college could see as much as $970,000 in Pell grant-covered tuition per year, according to federal data. That would equate to nearly half the $2.2 million the college budgeted for tuition income last year.

Because most participants won’t be enrolled as full-time students, the boost to tuition won’t reach that level, Stretcher said.

The benefits will nonetheless extend to the rest of the college’s offerings, president Betty Reynard said.

“It allows us to provide more services and programs for the students that we serve,” Reynard said. “We’re always interested in expanding opportunities and meeting the needs of our student population. That gives us the wiggle room to do that.”

Up to 243 federal and state inmates at Beaumont prisons are eligible to participate, according to the Department of Education. The pilot focuses on prisoners scheduled for release within five years and requires students to have good behavioral records and high-school degrees or equivalencies, Stretcher said.

Inmates haven’t been eligible for Pell grants since the 1994 crime bill. At the time, 0.6 percent of the grants, which are based on financial need and not repaid, went to inmates, according to USA Today.

LSC-PA has offered classes to inmates since the early ’90s, about one year before the Pell grant reform, Stretcher said. The pilot program is expected to last four years, but that is subject to change, he said.

Jefferson County Criminal District Judge John Stevens said one-third of people on probation in the county lack a high-school diploma, indicating education is one of the factors driving crime.

“It sounds to me like a great opportunity to make a better quality of life for the whole community,” Stevens said.

U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. told reporters last week the program does not lift Congress’ restrictions on Pell grant funding.

“That ban remains in place until Congress acts,” King said, according to Inside Higher Ed. King said the Education Department is using authority to bypass rules in order to test the idea.

“Second Chance Pell will allow us to measure the costs and benefits of this approach,” he said.

Proponents have also pointed to a 2013 Justice Department-funded study that found four to five dollars are saved on reincarceration costs for every one dollar invested in prison education.

The nation’s jails and prisons hold about 2.2 million people, according to the federal government, a problem that has been the target of bipartisan reform talks.

The Second Chance program will make available about $30 million in Pell grants, according to the Education Department.

EBesson@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/EricBesson_news