University Education for Pisoners

Top-Tier Universities Bring College Education to Prisoners

Although community colleges provide inmates with most college education, some top universities also offer prison education. Many prisoners with university education build successful careers after their release.

Research shows that few prisoners with college education re-offend. Despite the demand for prison university courses, programs are mostly privately funded, and there are not enough grants or financial support.

Universities Sponsor Prisoner College Programs

Universities play an important role in providing prisoners with education. Some elite universities, like Cornell, Rutgers, Princeton, Purdue, and Boston University, are providing prisoners with college-level education.

The Bard Prison Initiative

New York has operated privately funded college programs in 22 of its state prisons since 2000.  Attica Prison runs a college program with Bard College. Max Kenner founded the Bard Prison Initiative in 1999. As of early 2014, 275 inmates were enrolled.  (Zoukis, 2014).

Inmates can take individual classes or a degree program.  As of 2014, more than 500 inmates have taken classes, and 250 have graduated with degrees.  Alumni have gotten successful jobs and built careers, and some attend graduate schools.

The New Jersey STEP Program

New Jersey has some of the best prison education programs in America and cut its prison population by 20% between 2000 and 2012, when most states’ prison populations expanded.

The New Jersey Scholarship of Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) oversees college programs.  NJ-STEP is a collaboration between Princeton, Drew, and Rutgers universities, several community colleges, the College of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and the State Parole Board (Zoukis, 2014 b).

NJ-STEP provides courses to around 500 inmates each semester in six of the state’s 13 prisons. More than 50 courses are available, covering academic and vocational subjects.

Inmates can transfer credits between prisons, to community colleges, or to Rutgers.  A team helps newly released inmates enroll at participating colleges. Scholarships are available to study at Rutgers.

Cornell Universities

The Cornell Prison Education Program provides credit and non-credit courses at Auburn and Cayuga prisons, where more than 100 students enroll each year (Sederberg, 2010; Zoukis, 2014 b).

The Cornell program costs $1,800 per inmate per year, about the same cost as 11 days of prison.

Boston University

Boston University established its Metropolitan College Inmate Program in 1972. As of 2005, there were 180 inmates enrolled. The university funds the program, and university instructors teach onsite. Inmates work towards a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Rosseau & Matesanz, n.d.).

New Mexico’s University on the Web

Eastern New Mexico University’s correctional education courses are mostly academic and are taught through its one-way Internet connection called Web Course Tools (WebCT).  As of 2005, seven of the state’s nine prisons were connected to WebCT, with 309 inmates enrolled in the university’s Business Administration or University Studies associate degree programs (Erisman & Contardo, 2005).

Teachers Like to Teach; Prisoners Want to Learn

Teachers like to teach, and prisons are full of people who want to learn.  Since inmates were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994, a lack of funding has been the biggest obstacle for inmates seeking higher education.

Given how few prisoners with college-level education re-offend, it is unfortunate that post-secondary education is seen as a privilege that offenders don’t deserve. Universities that find ways to bring their courses to prisoners deserve great credit.  If rehabilitation is one day recognized as being as important as retribution, hopefully, many more universities will follow their lead.


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

Rousseau, D., & Matesanz, J. (n.d.). Prison education program. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from Boston University.

Sederberg, D. (2010, May 24). Offenders earning degrees through PNCThe Michigan City News Dispatch. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from

Zoukis, C. (2014). How ‘Attica Univ.’ could reap rewards for New YorkersBlog Critics. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from

Zoukis, C. (2014 b). Prison education works, The story of NJ-Step and CPEPBlog Critics. Retrieved 9/19/2014.