3 Things to Know About Higher Education in Prisons

By | August 1, 2015

The Obama administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will allow some prisoners, all of whom have been barred from receiving federal Pell Grants since 1994, to receive them under a limited pilot program. The change is small in scope, but it sends a strong signal.

Debates about educating inmates — and especially using taxpayer money to do so — are often heavy on heated rhetoric and light on facts. Let’s see if we can even the balance a bit.

Cries for more research are common throughout higher education, but there’s a real case to be made that correctional education merits further study. That said, some well-regarded work has already been done on the subject.

Experts cite a 2014 paper by the nonprofit RAND Corporation as the most thorough and up-to-date analysis. Among other things, RAND’s work provides a good overview of the state of education — including postsecondary offerings — in prisons and the best available sense of its impact. Here’s how it helps us answer three key questions:

How much education do inmates have?

The incarcerated population differs from the general population in a number of ways, including socioeconomic background, race, s3x, and yes, educational attainment. Put simply, prisoners have lower levels of education than do Americans in general. In a country where education is the primary conduit of opportunity, this disparity has big implications for ex-offenders’ ability to re-enter society.

The graph below compares education levels in the general population with those of state prisoners. (State prisons, not federal ones, hold most inmates.) In 2003 more than half of Americans had at least some postsecondary education, but in 2004 only about 14 percent of prisoners could say the same.

What’s the case for educating prisoners?

Some 700,000 inmates leave state and federal prisons each year, according to the RAND report. “Within three years of release,” it says, “40 percent will have committed new crimes or violated the terms of their release and be reincarcerated.”

That’s a distressingly high rate of recidivism, and it’s only natural to turn to education as one way to reduce it. But correctional education takes several forms, and only so much research has been done on any of them.

The RAND report statistically combined results from the existing research on the broad spectrum of correctional education for adults. Considering only those studies that met a higher bar in terms of research design, it found that educating prisoners was associated with a big drop in recidivism: Inmates who participated in correctional-education programs had 43 percent lower odds of “recidivating” than inmates who did not.

Who pays to educate prisoners now?

With prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, the funding that provides them with postsecondary education comes from a patchwork of sources that varies from state to state.

RAND asked states’ correctional-education directors to indicate which funding sources were used in their states. Here’s what the survey found:

The Pell pilot program would change that picture, at least for some inmates. And because it would be run through “experimental sites,” the program would also improve our understanding of correctional education.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.