Both houses of Congress are debating a set of bills to update portions of the Higher Education Act, the key federal postsecondary education law. The long-overdue refresh has been held up by disagreements over levels of funding, accountability, and how to handle sex discrimination under Title IX, among other issues.  Whenever the HEA finally does come up for reauthorization, the move to restore Pell grants to the incarcerated is expected to make the final draft. Legislators who care about improving access to higher education in prisons through Pell grants, however, must call for greater regulation of all colleges and universities offering programs in prisons–especially the for-profit institutions.

Quality control will be key if the hoped-for benefits of an education are to be realized. The combination of mass incarceration, particularly of African Americans, with the elimination of federal educational benefits in prisons, has left its mark on a generation. A quarter of a century after passage of landmark crime legislation, many are now questioning the rationale and implications of policy decisions related to incarceration and education. Bipartisan criminal justice reform is inching forward. Whether based on the belief that some have been treated unfairly or that the current system is not in the public’s and taxpayers’ interests, there is growing support for restoring federal educational benefits for incarcerated students. For those concerned about equity, this is a way to benefit those treated unfairly, positioning the incarcerated for better outcomes. For those whose top concerns are efficiency and the overall public good rather than equity, education is seen as a way to reduce costs of incarceration by reducing recidivism. The limited empirical evidence available suggests that getting a postsecondary degree reduces the probability of reincarceration by about 43 percent.

Restoring Pell grants to the incarcerated would allow significantly more people to pursue higher education. In 2014, only nine percent of those incarcerated completed a post-secondary educational program. Currently, Second Chance Pell is supporting only 12,000 students. Estimates suggest that about 450,000 prisoners would become eligible for Pell with a change in the current restrictions. If students have the ability to pay, colleges and universities would be more willing to supply programs. Some prison education programs persevered after the elimination of Pell, through philanthropy and volunteer activity, yet that is not a strategy to sustain or increase the numbers of students. In the early 1990s, there were over 750 programs in almost 1,300 prisons. By the late 1990s, one estimate puts the number of college-in-prison programs in single digits.

With the restoration of Pell grants, anticipated to follow the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell pilot, we will have a chance to do the right thing. To begin, many of the issues facing higher education on the “outside” will also need to be considered in prisons. One key issue is the appropriate role of private non-profit, public, and for-profit institutions. A major concern is that for-profit institutions will play an outsized role. Experience with for-profits in the general educational space suggests significant caution as educational opportunities in prisons expand. Currently, African Americans are overrepresented in for-profit institutions, where students have lower graduation rates and limited success at improving educational outcomes, while also accumulating debt.

The best response to concerns, on either equity or efficiency grounds, is to evaluate the quality of programs offered in prisons and restrict Pell grants to programs that meet a set of standards. Accrediting agencies could be asked to more carefully examine prison education programs than is currently the case. The Department of Education, as well as state departments of corrections, could also play a greater oversight role. Requiring that prison courses are truly equivalent to courses offered by institutions outside prisons would be a place to start, including access to educational materials.

Students don’t always know the value of the education they are receiving until years later, when all they learned benefits them, including in the labor market. This makes it difficult for students, unsure of the quality of what they are receiving and what will prove of enduring value. The non-profit and public forms of higher education address this problem, by not creating incentives to generate profits at the expense of students unable to evaluate exactly what they are getting.

In the prison context, this problem would be magnified many times over. These students may have limited or no choice, so the free market option of having consumers make different choices, already a weak constraint on the market on the “outside,” would not exist in the prison context.

If restoring Pell grants to incarcerated students is to yield benefits, whether to the individual or the taxpayer, there must be quality control of education providers. Racial inequities in access to higher education will be aggravated rather than ameliorated if we don’t take the lessons we have learned across American higher education and apply them to the prison context. African Americans are over-represented in the prison population and underrepresented in educational attainment. Expanding Pell grants to incarcerated people can help reverse these trends, reducing reincarceration and improving African American educational attainment, but only if the programs supported by Pell offer quality educational opportunities. We cannot count on our existing higher ed market to ensure that this happens.