Arne Duncan: Why Prisoners Need College Ed - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Arne Duncan: Why Prisoners Need College Ed

Arne Duncan: Why Prisoners Need College Ed

By Meghan Walsh

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks during a roundtable discussion with educators and interested parties at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on Monday, July 7, 2014.
SourceMelissa Golden/Redux


Because policymakers are rethinking the nation’s tough-on-crime ways. 

By Meghan Walsh

This OZY encore was originally published Aug. 3, 2015. Secretary Arne Duncan stepped down from his post in December 2015.

Presidents aren’t known for taking daytrips to prisons. But a couple of weeks ago, President Obama did just that. 

It’s part of a broader executive initiative on criminal justice reform. The latest? A pilot program that will allow certain inmates pursuing college credits to apply for Pell Grants. Last year, about 8.7 million students received an average of $3,634 in the form of Pell money — these are grants, not loans — and though the administration hasn’t yet worked out how many inmates will be eligible, it says it expects the cost to be a tiny portion of the overall Pell Grant spending, about $30 billion a year. The pilot program, announced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, does not reverse 1994 legislation that made inmates ineligible for Pell Grants. But it is another signal that the Obama administration is distancing itself from the tough-on-crime policies that swelled prison populations and, critics allege, were ineffective in reducing recidivism rates. 

In the wake of the announcement, Secretary Duncan spoke with OZY about the Pell Grant program and how it fits into the administration’s larger agenda on opportunity and education. Having been with Obama since the start of his presidency, Secretary Duncan has pushed through a number of policies meant to level the playing field across race and socio-economic status. Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, also spoke about the connections between education and criminal justice reform, the “school-to-prison pipeline” and what role the federal government should play in it all. An edited version of our conversation follows. 

OZY: Right now, offering Pell Grants to prisoners is just a pilot program. How will you measure whether it is a success or failure at the end? 

Arne Duncan: We’re going to evaluate this very carefully. Over time, the very clear metrics we’ll be looking at are — One: Are we reducing recidivism rates? Two: Are we increasing employment rates? And three: Long term, are folks who have made bad choices and are given a second chance able to take advantage and become productive citizens?

OZY: What can be done to keep kids in school and out of the justice system?

AD: We talk about the school-to-prison pipeline and we talk about high schools and colleges, but the honest truth is that the pipeline often starts at [ages] 3 and 4, and very disproportionally those being suspended and expelled are young boys of color. We’ve challenged the country to look at that, and to their credit, we’ve seen many districts and states start to change their policies. Many districts are moving away from out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and zero-tolerance policies and moving toward restorative justice and peer juries, and these are all very significant steps in the right direction.

OZY: There is essentially no regulation of the education provided in juvenile detention centers. Is this an instance where a federal policy is necessary because local governments haven’t met their obligations?

AD: It’s so important that we not give up on young people. And where we can educate, whether it’s juveniles or adults who are locked up, it literally transforms their lives. A man who was [at a prison I visited] earlier today talked about how it wasn’t just the credential that was a big deal, but that education just gave him a very different worldview and helped him think about himself and his circumstances in an entirely different way. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 a year, and to lock someone up is about $40,000. I know as a taxpayer which investment I’d rather make.

OZY: Do you think the federal government should have a stronger role is shaping education?

AD: Education will always first and foremost be a local issue. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s the right federal role, and the three things I keep coming back to are — One: fighting for equity. We have to fight for the children in the communities that historically have not had educational opportunities. Second: making sure that there are high standards for everyone. And third: We should be focusing on innovation and scaling what works.

OZY: Looking back, what has been the most surprising or interesting part of the job?

AD: The thing that always just inspires me is the amazing potential of our nation’s young people. I’m lucky enough to be able to talk to extraordinary young people everywhere I go — many of whom are overcoming very tough odds — but because they’ve had great teachers and counselors and social workers and coaches and mentors, they’re doing unbelievable things. I see what our kids can do if we meet them halfway.

OZY: If you had four more years in office, what would be No. 1 on your to-do list?

AD: Top of the list would be creating universal access to pre-K. The average child coming from a poor family starts kindergarten a year to 16 months behind, and all too often they never catch up. For every dollar we invest in pre-K education, we get back $7 — better dropout, teenage pregnancy, incarceration and high school graduation rates. From a taxpayer standpoint, how many times do we invest $1 and get back $7? And just from a human potential standpoint, these are transformation opportunities that can literally change the course of a young person’s life.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories