College Education in American Prisons

Availability is Patchy and Inconsistent

Prisoners are between three to eight times less likely to have a college degree than the general adult population. Yet, many prisoners are qualified for college education, and there is proof it contributes towards higher income. Although many jails and prisons offer post-secondary programs, what is offered depends on prison authorities. There are many obstacles for prisoners, including less funding. What college courses a prisoner can access varies, but there are determined students.

Prison is No College

Many college graduates end up in prison, while prisoners who take college courses have some of the lowest rates of recidivism.  Despite the success, the availability of college study in prisons is limited.

Many Prisoners Are Ready for College-Level Courses

State and county prisoners are about eight times less likely than the general adult population to have a college degree. The number for federal prisoners is three times higher (Harlow, 2003).  However, an estimated 73,000 college graduates are in prison. They crave intellectual stimulation and want training and qualifications for a new career after prison.

About 1.4 million men and women in prison have a high school diploma or GED and are eligible for post-secondary education.  Around 90% of prisoners take vocational courses (Erisman & Contardo, 2005), and that may be the best option for them.  But a college education is still best for about 150,000 prisoners.

College Education Means Higher Wages for Released Prisoners

An article published by The Economist states the average discounted value of a college degree measured over a career is $590,000 for a man and $370,000 for a woman (Wealth by Degrees, 2014).

Ex-convicts face huge obstacles and probably won’t see the same benefits, but taking college courses raises an offender’s wages after release. They need every advantage to get a job and reintegrate into society.

College for Convicts

In 2000, 81% of federal prisons, 27% of state and private prisons, and 3% of local jails offered college courses (Harlow, 2003).

How prisons offer college education depends on prison authorities.  Some prisons offer fully funded degree programs from top-tier universities, taught on-site by university staff.  In others, like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates may take college correspondence courses if they can discover them, enroll in them, and pay for them.  Degree programs usually cost upwards of $35,000, and most prisoners can’t afford it.

A Timeline of College in Prison

Before 1994

  • Prisoners could apply for federal Pell Grants to study college programs.


  • The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made prisoners ineligible for federally funded need-based financial assistance (Taylor, 2008).
  • About 27,000 inmates had been receiving Pell Grants in the 1993-1994 academic year.


  • 10% of state inmates took college courses, down 29% from six years earlier.
  • 13% of federal inmates took college courses, down 32%.
  • 1% of jail prisoners took college courses, though jail terms are usually much shorter than prison terms (Erisman & Contardo, 2005).
  • Most inmates taking college degree programs are enrolled in associate degree programs.


  • According to a 2010 national survey of post-secondary education in state prisons:
    •  6% of state prisoners (around 71,000) were enrolled in a post-secondary program (Gorgol & Sponsler, 2011).
    • Assuming 90% were taking a vocational program, 0.6% or 7,100 enrolled in academic college programs.

Prisoner enrolment in post-secondary education varies by state

This same 2010 survey showed a wide variation between states, with high and low enrollers. North Carolina had 16,500 enrolled inmates, while South Dakota had less than 50.  Thirteen high-enrollment states each enrolled an average of 3,100 inmates per year.  Between them, these states accounted for 86% of incarcerated students.  The low-enrollment states had an average enrollment of 250.

Despite the obstacles, in the 2009-2010 academic year, state inmate students earned 9,863 certificates, 2,228 associate degrees, and 369 bachelor’s degrees (Gorgol & Sponsler, 2011).

Success Left Up to Chance

College education can reduce recidivism by 50% or more and should be available to all inmates able and willing to participate.  Instead, the availability of college courses depends on a zip code lottery, or the ability to be self-financing, which eludes almost all prisoners.


Avery, C., & Turner, S. (2012, Winter). Student loans: Do college students borrow too much or not enough? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(1), 165.

Erisman, W., & Contardo, J. B. (2005). Learning to reduce recidivism: A 50-state analysis of postsecondary correctional education policy. Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Gorgol, L. E., & Sponsler, B. A. (2011). Unlocking potential: Results of a national survey of post-secondary education in state prisons. Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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

Taylor, J. M. (2008). Pell Grants for Prisoners: Why should we care? Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, 17(1), 18.

Wealth by degrees. (2014, June 28). The Economist. p. 52.