This summer, for the first time in 22 years, 12,000 prison inmates can use federal funding to take college courses – a change that could ease their transition to civilian life and reduce the chances they will commit crimes again upon release. A bill in the House and Senate would offer the same opportunity to hundreds of thousands more.

In 1994, Congress banned Pell Grants for prisoners. The rule remains in place, but last year the Obama administration announced a pilot program in partnership with 67 colleges and universities to let some prisoners earn a degree while they serve their sentences. The program launched last month, but allowing all inmates to benefit is up to Congress: Legislation to strike the prisoner prohibition was introduced in the House last year, and a matching proposal was recently brought to the Senate. Both should pass.

Lawmakers made a mistake when they decided that educating prisoners for free would reward bad behavior at the expense of law-abiding students who struggle to pay tuition. Prisoner education encourages good behavior; inmates who make the effort should be encouraged. And the expense is modest: In 1993 and 1994, funding for prisoners took up less than 1 percent of Pell Grants. Congress could reinstate inmate eligibility without depriving students outside of the prison system.

In fact, programs that reduce recidivism save money. Right now, 68 percent of prisoners end up back behind bars within three years of release. Recidivism rates decrease to less than 14 percent when prisoners receive associate degrees and to less than 6 percent when they earn bachelor’s degrees. Every dollar spent on educating prisoners saves $5 in reincarceration costs, a Rand Corp. analysis found.

Inmates leave prison to find a world different from the one they left. Without education, the adjustment is harder and joblessness more likely. As a result, too many prisoners re-enter the outside world only to find themselves serving another sentence after just a few years, and too many other Americans are hurt by their crimes. Congress could – and should – change that.

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