Inmate Education Levels

While only 18% of people outside of prison have not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent, the number of inmates without this level of education is much higher.

Prisoners are significantly less educated than the general population of adults. When looking at the educational level of inmates, it is clear there is a deep need for education. It’s twice as common for inmates to have only a grade eight education or less, and a high percentage of prisoners don’t have a high school diploma or equivalent or a college education. Learning disabilities are common, and prisoners with an ethnic minority background tend to have lower education levels.

The Educational Level of Inmates

It’s easier to understand the educational needs, programs, and challenges of the American prison system once you understand the educational spectrum of the inmates.
The most comprehensive and reliable data comes from a Bureau of Justice Statistics special report from January 2003, using data from “representative surveys” conducted mostly in 1997 (Harlow, 2003).

High School Dropouts

Dropping out of high school is a significant problem. The top four reasons local jail prisoners dropped out of high school are:

  1. Loss of interest or behavioral or academic problems – more than a third and twice as many as the general population
  2. Family or personal problems – 16% of local jail inmates compared to 19% of the general population
  3. Going to work or enlisting in the military – 13% of local jail inmates versus 24% of the general population
  4. Going to prison – 11% of local jail inmates

Citation: Harlow, 2003

Those with military service were almost four times more likely to earn their GED or high school diploma, while drug offenders were somewhat less likely (Harlow, 2003).

While only 18% of people outside of prison have not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent, the number of inmates without this level of education is much higher:

  • 47% of inmates in county jails
  • 40% of inmates in state jails
  • 27% of inmates in federal prison

Citation: Harlow, 2003

Obtaining a GED

Many inmates work toward a General Educational Development (GED) test while in prison. A GED is equivalent to a high school diploma and is the highest level of education some inmates have. Click the infographic above to find out the statistics.

Although a high percentage of inmates didn’t graduate high school, many went on to earn a GED.

Inmates who earned a GED

  • 75% of state inmates failed to complete high school versus 47% who earned GED
  • 59% of federal inmates failed to complete high school versus 55% who earned GED
  • 69% of local jail inmates failed to complete high school versus 32% who earned GED*

*This figure may represent the shorter time inmates spent in local jails as well as poorer provision of educational programs.

Citation: Harlow, 2003

Learning Disabilities Play an Important Role

Learning disabilities are widespread and appear to play a large role when looking at education levels. This is especially true for inmates with a grade eight education (or less).
State prisoners are twice as likely as the general adult population to have a grade eight or less education. In the federal system, the failure to exceed grade eight is two-thirds higher than the general population (Harlow, 2003).

In 1994, the Ohio Legislative Office of Educational Oversight estimated that 50 to 80% of the state’s offenders were learning disabled, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics data showed that two-thirds of inmates without a high school diploma or GED had a learning disability (Cogswell, 1994; Harlow, 2003).

Post-Secondary Education is Rare

As expected, the number of individuals with college degrees is much lower in prisons than on the outside. In state prisons and local jails, the number of individuals with college degrees is only one-eighth of that in the general population.  For federal inmates, that rate is almost three times higher than in state and local jails (Harlow, 2003).

Participation in post-secondary college or vocational programs is two to three times higher than actual college graduation, but still lags behind the general adult population (Harlow, 2003).

Ethnicity and Gender Play a Role

Men and women are fairly equal in education levels up to a high school diploma or GED.  However, women are 27% more likely to have taken some college or other post-secondary education, and 35% more likely to be college graduates (Cogswell, 1994; Harlow, 2003).

Inmates from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to have lower academic attainment.  For example, 44% of black inmates and 53% of Hispanic inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED, compared to 27% of Caucasian inmates.  Few state prisoners with an ethnic minor background hold a college degree. Only 1.6% of black inmates and 1.9% of Hispanic inmates have a degree, compared to 3.5% of Caucasian inmates.

Citation: Cogswell, 1994

Learn more about the associations between ethnic background and educational opportunities in our policy paper ‘The Importance of Ethnicity in Correctional Education.’

The Path Forward

There is a broad educational background of inmates, from poor basic achievement, very often associated with learning disability, to college graduates and even graduate degree holders.  Each inmate brings their own educational needs or aspirations and presents a challenge to correctional educators.  The most pressing need is from those with no high school diploma or GED, and this is where the most effort is directed.


Cogswell, S. (1994). Education behind bars: Opportunities and obstacles. Ohio Legislative Office of Educational Oversight.

Harlow, C. W. (2003). Education and correctional populations. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice. NCJ 195670.

Kennedy, B. (2014, February 11). ACLU says legal costs punish the poor. CBS MoneyWatch. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from

Tolbert, M. (2009, March). Partnerships between community colleges and prisons: Providing workforce education and training to reduce recidivism. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Office of Correctional Education.