Career and Vocational Courses

Of all the different types of correspondence education that prisoners can participate in, career and vocational courses for prisoners are probably the most useful. This is because they quickly and relatively inexpensively provide prisoners with the knowledge and tools needed to immediately get a job upon their release from prison.

Let’s face it, college isn’t for everyone, but having a job is. If you know anyone in prison who isn’t interested in a college education — or who can’t afford college correspondence courses — then career and vocational courses might be a good option.

Career or vocational training prepares the student for a particular kind of work, such as a mechanic or physical trainer. It qualifies you to work in hospitality management, trucking, or disaster management, among many other fields. One field of training that might be of interest to a prisoner is paralegal training since the law is what put us behind bars and the law has the power to release us.

There are literally hundreds of vocational courses to choose from, such as HVAC, AutoCAD, building trades, paralegal, writing, personal fitness, and veterinarian assistant. There are literally hundreds of options to choose from, and almost all of them offer payment plans and can take as little as two or three months to a year or two to complete; much less time and much more financially flexible than traditional college correspondence courses.

Benefits to Vocational Studies

Although it is true that academic college studies can open doors to some of the best career opportunities, vocational studies have several marked advantages:

  • The programs take much less time to complete than two- or four-year college programs. If you will be released in a short amount of time, you still might be able to complete a vocational program while incarcerated;
  • The courses and programs are typically less expensive;
  • The schools often offer better payment plans;
  • It is easier to take the exams because the courses usually do not require that tests be proctored;
  • All the courses required for a specific certificate or diploma are offered in an easy-to-use packaged format; and
  • The programs are practical. You will use what you learn very quickly.

Factors to Consider

When dealing with academic colleges and universities, it’s easy to determine quality. If the school is regionally accredited then they are a quality institution. End of story. But for career and vocational schools there is no universally recognized accreditation, no hard-and-fast rules as to which accreditation agencies are reliable or not.

If a vocational school is regionally accredited (the school, not the trade program), it probably offers college-level courses in their vocational program. Instead of conferring a degree, however, they award a certificate or a diploma. The good thing about schools like this is that you actually receive transferrable college credits for completion of the vocational program. Should you ever decide in the future to continue on for a college degree, those credits will give you a head start.

At this level of study, for the prisoner-student, a school is worth your efforts if it offers distance courses via correspondence (every school listed in this section offers courses in a paper-based format that prisons allow), if employers in your industry respect and accept the school’s credentials, and if the students feel they are better prepared for a particular field of work after completing their studies.

What the industry values is almost impossible to know. Your best option is to take courses through a school that is a part of the industry. For example, if you want to work in the hospitality business, take courses through the American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Institute, an important professional association. If you want to go into government work, take courses through Graduate School USA, which was created specifically for people who want to work in government. If your plan is to become a physical trainer, sign up for courses through the International Sports Sciences Association, a major professional association for personal trainers.

You get the idea. Choose the work you want to do, then find their primary professional association. Write to that association to ask where, if not through the association itself, the best training is offered. Go to a school that is either operated by or recommended by the professional association.

In the realm of career and vocational studies, most do not provide college course credits unless it is specifically stated. If your career or vocational program says it awards college credits for completion then you receive college credit. Just make sure the school awarding the credit is regionally accredited. Otherwise, the credit(s) might not transfer.

Note on Vocational School Credit: Completion of most vocational courses can earn you CEUs (continuing education units) or clock hours. CEUs calculate how much credit is to be awarded for a particular course. One CEU is awarded for every 10 hours of course participation. These are nationally recognizable units that become part of your permanent transcript; however, these units are rarely accepted as college credit. In the rare cases where they are accepted as college credit, they are usually restricted to elective credits, not credits toward courses required for your major.
Clock hours (1 clock hour equals 1 hour of course participation) are another way to evaluate how much credit should be awarded for a particular course. Clock hours do not translate into college credit hours.
There are three primary factors to consider when selecting a career and vocational program:

  • Personal interest. In order to succeed in a correspondence program – and to take that knowledge and use it to find a job when they’re released – they have to really want to learn about the topic and put it into practice. Therefore, they should only enroll in a program that truly interests them.
  • Look for a program that is either affiliated with a related professional body or are actually offered through the professional body itself. For the most part, career-level correspondence programs aren’t accredited. If the correspondence program is somehow linked with the primary professional body (e.g., legal programs could be affiliated with a national paralegal association), then it is a program to take a good look at. The same can be said for programs that have agreements with unions or employers to supply workers or interns.
  • Any program considered should, at a minimum, qualify graduates to sit for certifying or licensure examinations upon program completion. Some professions require certifications, some don’t, and some view professional certifications as a nice plus. For example, in the paralegal realm, paralegals are not required to be certified unless working in North Carolina or California, but they must go through a legitimate training program. Some paralegal programs – for example, Blackstone Career Institute — qualify graduates to sit for national paralegal association certifications. These are additional examinations to prove expertise in the field of study. The same is true with other topical areas.

In an effort to point our readers in the right direction, has put together the following list of recommended career and vocational correspondence programs. All these programs are top-notch and our list of recommended schools provides a healthy breadth of topical areas.

It might be a good idea to contact all of these correspondence program providers and have them send the incarcerated student their course catalogs. This way the prisoner can select the program that interests them the most.

Adams State University is a really great school at several levels of education. Founded in 1921, they are regionally accredited, friendly to the prisoner-student, and have numerous excellent certificate programs — including the acclaimed Victim Advocacy Certificate program. Their system of comprehensive fees for each certificate program ($525 to $3,150) allows you to plan for exactly how much the certificate will cost. Some of their vocational programs (i.e., the Paralegal Certificate) might confer college credits for completion.

Blackstone Career Institute – If you are interested in the legal field (as a paralegal, for example, or with criminal law and procedure, civil litigation, business, and corporate law, etc.), this is an excellent choice for vocational education. Blackstone charges relatively low tuition rates ($767 per diploma program and $396 per advanced certificate program). They also offer a number of discounts and a monthly payment plan ($59 down/$59 per month). Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools and the Distance Education and Training Council, their programs are also approved by the National Association of Legal Assistants, one of the industry’s professional associations.

  • Graduate School USA

Graduate School USA offers a large number of courses focused on practical vocational skills needed in the workplace, including many programs specific to government work. The school has low tuition rates and provides the option to audit many courses (you can attend the course and learn but it does not count officially toward completion of your program). Students earn a certificate of completion for each course. If you think you might want to work for the government in any capacity, this is the place to go.

Lakewood College offers a certificate program in mediation. They are accredited only by the Distance Education and Training Council, which is not a regional accreditation that will assure transferrable credits. On the other hand, they offer monthly payment plans ($700 down and monthly payments as low as $409), free job placement, and resume assistance.

If your dream is to become a writer, the Long Ridge Writers Group is a unique correspondence program (not accredited) to teach both fiction and nonfiction writing via a mentorship program. My personal experience taking the program confirmed it to be very detailed, useful, and comprehensive. The program teams each student with a mentor who is a professional writer or editor with a track record of published credits or work experience. The student completes lessons in the course manual and sends them to his personal mentor or instructor, who corrects the assignment and returns it to the student along with a letter explaining what the student does well and what needs work.
Their program also teaches the student how to market their writing and get paid as a freelance writer. The course is available with a payment plan and, for a fee, Charter Oak State College will award 7 college credits for completion. These credits are only applicable to Charter Oak State College. They cannot be transferred elsewhere.

Career and Vocational Correspondence Programs for Prisoners