Report Describes Limits of Inmates' Access to College Education

May 04, 2011

About 6 percent of the prison inmates in the United States were enrolled in postsecondary education during the 2009-10 academic year, but less than a quarter of the credentials awarded to prisoners were associate or bachelor's degrees, says a report released today by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The report, "Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons," shows that inmates in 13 states accounted for 86 percent of those enrolled in postsecondary programs in the 43 states whose officials responded to the survey.

States with high enrollments, including California, Texas, North Carolina, and New York, were likelier to finance prison education than were states with low enrollments: 77 percent of high-enrollment states said prisons received state funds for postsecondary education, compared with 23 percent in low-enrollment states.

Across all of the responding states, more inmates received vocational certificates than associate or bachelor's degrees. A total of 9,900 incarcerated students earned certificates in 2009-10, while 2,200 earned associate degrees, and 400 earned bachelor's degrees, the survey found.

States with high enrollments were also more likely to consider behavioral characteristics to determine an inmate's eligibility for postsecondary education. States with low enrollments were more likely to consider the inmate's age and reason for incarceration.

"Large-enrollment states also have larger prison systems and capacity challenges," said Brian A. Sponsler, a research analyst at the institute, who is an author of the report. Behavioral evaluations "are one way they're weeding out participants."

Although research has shown a link between educating prisoners and reduced rates of recidivism, many inmates have struggled to pay for college since President Bill Clinton barred inmates from receiving Pell Grants, in 1994.

Some private colleges have joined with nearby prisons to offer free, for-credit courses to inmates, but those individual partnerships—while often successful in reducing recidivism on a small scale—don't represent the educational opportunities available to most inmates, Mr. Sponsler said.

The report offers three recommendations for revamping prison education: First, create a pilot program at the federal or state level that allows prisoners to take online courses. Second, collaborate with state colleges so that courses offered behind bars will be transferable in statewide systems. Third, restructure eligibility requirements for need-based aid to make it available to certain subsets of the prison population.

Online courses would expand access to a large number of inmates, but concerns about allowing prisoners to gain access to the Internet have kept them out of such courses. The technology to regulate inmates' Internet access exists, Mr. Sponsler said, but no state has taken that step.

Policy changes around prison education will very likely move slowly, he said, especially amid state-budget crises and recent cuts in the Pell Grant program for the general student population.

"The question about where this lays in the political sphere is a tough one," Mr. Sponsler said, "and we're aware that this is an issue that will be one of many things that states are going to have to wrestle with as they go through budget cycles."