MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And we have one more issue in education for you. For the last year, inmates in some prisons have been able to use federal Pell Grants to take college courses and earn degrees while serving time. It's an Obama-era pilot program. Nearly 70 colleges are working with and within prisons to reach about 12,000 students behind bars. Among them is Ashland University in Ohio. WGBH's Lydia Emmanouilidou went to check in.
LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU, BYLINE: Before prison, Waymann Washington wasn't exactly prioritizing his college education.
WAYMANN WASHINGTON: In 1978, I was in school for about two months, and I dropped out.
EMMANOUILIDOU: And what were you studying there?
EMMANOUILIDOU: You didn't know?
WASHINGTON: (Laughter). I was there on a scholarship - football scholarship. And I really didn't take it serious.
EMMANOUILIDOU: Washington's taking it very seriously now. He's at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, serving a six-year sentence for drug trafficking.
WASHINGTON: And, you know, that song with Michael Jackson, "The Man In The Mirror"? Well, in here, it's a real mirror and it's a real man. And you have to really look at yourself and say, why am I here? Then you could say, well, how can I avoid from ever coming back here and improve my life? That's where Ashland came in.
EMMANOUILIDOU: Ashland University is a Christian liberal arts school about an hour south of Cleveland. It's one of dozens of colleges selected to educate inmates who qualify for federal Pell Grants. Right now, Washington and 15 other inmates here, who are said to be released within the next five years, are working toward their associate's degrees from the school.
WASHINGTON: This is real - a lot of hard work, a lot of studying, a lot of time invested. And it's real. But it really gives us a brotherhood because we help each other out with homework. I have guys on the block who tutor me because a lot of guys, you know, might have been teachers or so forth.
EMMANOUILIDOU: This isn't the first time prisoners have had access to these grants. They were first introduced decades ago but fell out of favor during the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. The argument went something like this - if families of law-abiding citizens are struggling to afford college, why are prisoners getting it for free?
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BILL CLINTON: There must be no doubt about whose side we're on.
EMMANOUILIDOU: That's President Bill Clinton. In 1994, he signed a crime bill that banned prisoners from using Pell funding.
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CLINTON: This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it, on the side of the victims, not their attackers.
EMMANOUILIDOU: Without those resources, the educational infrastructure inside prisons crumbled.
DAVID WEBB: We could do college classes but not offer degree programs.
EMMANOUILIDOU: David Webb is Ashland's director of correctional programs. He's been on the job for decades. He was there when prisoners were still allowed to use federal funding to get degrees. He was there when the practice got banned. And he's there now as the school is once again offering associate's degrees to about 650 prisoners and building a bachelor's program. The pilot doesn't take funds away from students on the outside, but Webb says educating this population is just as controversial as it was when he first came on the job.
WEBB: Their argument is, you know, why is my daughter paying to go to college and this person that committed a felony is going to - for free? I've put two through college. I have another one coming, so I completely understand the cost involved. But we also have to look at what is the impact to society because 90 percent of them are going to return to society.
EMMANOUILIDOU: Research shows that when inmates get a college education, they're half as likely to end up back in prison. That's according to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation. It found prison education can equal big savings for taxpayers, approximately $4 to $5 for every dollar invested in education. Still, funding for the pilot expires in 2019, and there's no indication that the Trump administration will extend it. For now, prisoners like Washington are getting their degrees.
WASHINGTON: I don't want to say this the wrong way, but it's really a good thing that I got here. And a lot of guys on this compound, they'll tell you - because we just heading the wrong direction. And if we didn't get stopped, we would have kept on down that street, and we might not have been here talking to you. We might not be here at all.
EMMANOUILIDOU: Next summer, at 59 years old, Washington will walk out of prison with an associate's degree in hand. He says he wants to use that degree to land a job and stay out of prison. He does want to go back to school, he says, and get his bachelor's. For NPR News, I'm Lydia Emmanouilidou.
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