Convictions for assault and drug possession landed Terrell Johnson in the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup.
At the prison on Friday, the Baltimore man told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Education Secretary Arne Duncan that he wants to show his three children a different path: education.
Johnson, 33, is one of more than 70 inmates taking liberal arts classes through a program offered by Goucher College. He sends his transcripts to his children to show his scores; he has told his 12-year-old that "you're never too old for school."
"I'm trying to change and set a better example," Johnson said.
Lynch and Duncan visited the prison Friday to announce a program that could help. More than 20 years after Congress banned federal student aid to prisoners, the Obama administration plans to carve out an exception for a limited number of inmates.
The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which could start as soon as the fall of 2016, would help inmates cover college costs.
"America is a nation of second chances," Duncan said. "Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are.
"It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."
The experimental program would last three to five years, officials said. It would be open to prisoners who are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years.
Pell grants do not have to be repaid.
Republicans were quick to criticize the program, saying it would reward people who break the law at the expense of hardworking Americans, and the administration doesn't have authority to act without congressional approval.
Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, introduced legislation to block the effort.
"The Obama administration's plan to put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of the taxpayers is consistent with their policy of rewarding lawbreakers while penalizing hardworking Americans," he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said the idea might be worthwhile for some prisoners, "but the administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress."
The Tennessee Republican, who was an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said the administration should focus on existing job training and re-entry programs.
Congress passed legislation in 1994 banning government student aid to prisoners in federal or state institutions. But the Education Department said it can set up the temporary pilot program under the experimental sites section of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which gives federal officials flexibility to test the effectiveness of temporary changes to the way federal student aid is distributed.
Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell said "we think that a lot has changed" since Congress approved the ban. He said the pilot program would help provide data to see if the ban should still stay in place.
Mitchell said the program would "not compromise or displace any Pell grant eligibility for any other populations."
Joining Duncan and Lynch at the prison were several Democrats from Maryland's congressional delegation: Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen.
Edwards, of Prince George's County, introduced legislation in May that would lift the ban on prisoners receiving student aid.
"I think that [the administration experiment] is an important first step," she said. "But it doesn't either arrogate or deny the Congress the responsibility of doing what we can to restore people so that they are productive members of society."
State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a College Park Democrat, said he is drafting legislation to encourage public colleges in Maryland to help the state prison system "maximize" the number of prisoners who get college training before they are released.
"It costs taxpayers more to send young people to Jessup than it does to College Park," he said. "We need to use the money we're already spending in prisons to help make sure that, when prisoners come out, they can pull their own weight, support themselves and their families, and stay out of trouble."
In the final years of his presidency, President Barack Obama has placed greater emphasis on changing the nation's criminal justice system, taking executive action as well as pushing for new legislation.
He commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders this month, including the most commutations a president has issued on a single day in at least four decades. He has also ordered a federal review of the use of solitary confinement, called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have served their sentences, asked employers to stop asking job candidates about past convictions, and urged that long mandatory minimum sentences be reduced or discarded entirely.
Supporters of the administration's Pell pilot program point to a 2013 RAND Corp. study that found incarcerated people who took part in prison education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who didn't participate in any correctional education. For every dollar invested in correctional education programs, RAND estimates that $4 to $5 are saved on three-year reincarceration costs.
The Education Department did not provide any estimates on how many prisoners might participate in the pilot program. Mitchell said the costs would be "modest," but he was not able to put a dollar figure on the program.
The federal Pell program provided grants ranging from $582 to $5,645 to more than 8.6 million students in 2013-2014, according to the department. The maximum award for the 2015-2016 school year is $5,775.
Goucher's Prison Education Partnership, which began classes for prisoners in 2012, does not receive public funding. The school is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, based at Bard College in New York.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this article.