College Courses in Prison Cut Crime

Studies show inmates who earn a degree are the least likely to re-offend. However, the availability of college education in American prisons is generally poor.

College-Level Education in Prisons Cuts Recidivism

More than 30 years of research have proven that prisoners with higher education are linked to much less recidivism. Even a little college study reduces criminal behavior. Studies show inmates who earn a degree are the least likely to re-offend. However, the availability of college education in American prisons is generally poor.

Prison Education Reduces Recidivism

The 2013 RAND Corporation’s meta-analysis has the best estimate of the effects of a college education.  Participation in academic college courses is associated with 51% less recidivism. The number is higher for degree holders. The lowered risk lasts for at least five years after a prisoner is released.

The RAND study proves the best educational intervention to prevent re-incarceration is providing prisoners with the availability of college education (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, & Miles, 2013).

Proof From Other Studies


  • 189 inmates who completed at least 12 hours of a community college associate degree program were compared with 189 similar inmates who had not taken the program.
  • Educated inmates were 36% less likely to re-offend after their release (37% versus 58%)(Blackburn, 1981).


  • An analysis of 986 New York offenders compared those with a college diploma with those who didn’t complete the program.  Five years after their release, diploma holders were 40% less likely to be re-incarcerated (Clark, 1991).


  • 976 Ohio offenders who participated in college classes had 12% less recidivism (Anderson, S.V., 1995).


  • New York female inmates who took college courses had a 7.7 recidivism rate over three years, 74% lower than women with no college classes (Fine, Torre, Boudin, Bowen, Clark, et al., 2001).


  • Massachusetts inmates who took at least one three-credit college course were 22% less likely to re-offend up to five years after their release compared to peers who didn’t take courses (Burke, L. O., & Vivian, J. E., 2001).


  • 318 Ohio offenders who participated for three months or more in an associate degree program were 68% less likely to return to prison than those with less than three months of education or none at all. Students also had a 168% higher rate of employment. (Batiuk, Lahm, McKeever, Wilcox, & Wilcox, 2005).
  • Virginia young offender inmates who took some college courses had a 50% lower rate of re-incarceration (12.6% versus 25%) and higher average earnings (Lichtenberger, E. J., & Onyewu, N., 2005).

The amount of college education varied from one study to the next, but all the studies show a drop in recidivism ranging from 12% to 74%.

Graduating with a Degree is Associated with Huge Reductions in Recidivism

For a better understanding of the effects of prisoners receiving more college education, the studies below include only inmates who graduated from a degree program.


The study compared recidivism rates in four states for newly released offenders.

  • Alabama: 97% less re-incarceration (1% versus 35%),
  • New York: 42% less re-incarceration (26% versus 45%),
  • Texas: 72% less re-incarceration (10% versus 36%)
  • North Carolina:  88% less re-incarceration (5% versus 40%).

Citation: (Stevens, D. J., & Ward, C. S., 1997)


  • 972 Ohio offenders had a 62% decrease in recidivism (Batiuk, Moke, & Roundtree, 1997).


  • 93 Washington state inmates who graduated from a community college degree program had 63% less recidivism over five years after their release compared to 7,900 inmates released at the same time but without a degree. (Kelso Jr., C. E., 2000)

This is a sample of many studies.  All show significant reductions.

Prisoners with varying amounts of college education had a 12% to 74% reduction in recidivism.  Inmates who graduated with degrees had 42% to 97% less recidivism.  A rough comparison shows an average estimate of 40% less recidivism in studies examining college course participation and 68% less recidivism for degree holders.

More studies are needed, but the data appear to support that more study leads to greater reductions in recidivism.

The RAND Corporation’s Meta-Analysis Gives the Best Average Effect Estimate

The RAND Corporation used meta-analysis for more accurate results.  Meta-analysis calculates an average value from multiple studies, giving more weight to technically superior studies or studies using more subjects.

In 2013, RAND published an estimate based on 19 studies. On average, participation in academic college courses was associated with 51% less recidivism. Participation includes everything from a single course to graduating with a degree (Davis et al., 2013).  RAND’s estimate is probably the most reliable one to date.  It falls between our crude estimates of 40% for participation in college courses and 68% for degree holders.

Prison Education: A Crime Control Policy Worth Considering

While college-level education is not appropriate for all prisoners, the association with reducing recidivism suggests it should be available to any inmate willing and able to participate.

Currently, there is limited availability of college education. It’s a missed opportunity to change the lives of offenders, make communities safer, and save taxpayer money.


Anderson, S. V. (1995). Evaluation of the impact of correctional education programs on recidivism. Office of Management Information Systems Bureau of Planning and Evaluation, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Columbus, Ohio.

Batiuk, M. E., Lahm, K. F., McKeever, M., Wilcox, N., & Wilcox, P. (2005, February). Disentangling the effects of correctional education. Criminal Justice Quarterly, 5(1), 55-75.

Batiuk, M. E., Moke, P., & Roundtree, P. W. (1997). Crime and rehabilitation: Correctional education as an agent of change – a research note. Criminal Justice Quarterly, 14(1), 167-180.

Blackburn, F. S. (1981). The relationship between recidivism and participation in a community college program for incarcerated offenders. Journal of Correctional Education, 32(3), 23-25.

Burke, L. O., & Vivian, J. E. (2001). The effect of college programming on recidivism rates at the Hampden County House of Correction: a five-year study. Journal of Correctional Education, 52, 148-169.

Clark, D. D. (1991). Analysis of return rates of Inmate College Program participants. New York State Department of Correctional Services. Albany, New York.

Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education – A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation.

Fine, M., Torre, M. E., Boudin, K., Bowen, I., Clark, J., et al. (2001). Changing minds: The impact of college in a maximum security prison. The Graduate Research Center of the City University of New York and Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. New York.

Kelso Jr., C. E. (2000, June). Recidivism rates for two education programs’ graduates compared to overall Washington State rates. Journal of Correctional Education, 51(2), 233-236.

Lichtenberger, E. J., & Onyewu, N. (2005). Virginia Department of Correctional Education’s Incarcerated Youth Offender Program: A historical report (No. 9). Virginia Department of Correctional Education. Richmond, Virginia.

Stevens, D. J., & Ward, C. S. (1997, September). College education and recidivism: Educating criminals is meritorious. Journal of Correctional Education, 48, 106-111.