College Courses in Prison

College Courses in Prison

Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Research indicates that prison college programs are among the best tools for reducing recidivism. Individuals who take college courses while in prison improve their chances of attaining and keeping employment after release. They are less likely to commit additional crimes that would lead to their return to prison. The effectiveness of these programs led to widespread adoption for several years. However, nearly all programs were discontinued during the 1990’s and few college programs are currently active in prison settings. The history of these programs, and the debate about their merits, demonstrates the counterproductive effect that political influence can have on efforts to combat crime.

In 1965, only 12 post-secondary correctional education programs were operating in the United States. By 1982 there were 350 programs with approximately 27,000 inmates, representing almost 9% of the total prison population at the time, receiving some form of post-secondary education (Wolford and Littlefield, 1985). The rapid increase in these programs began in 1965 when Congress passed Title IV of the Higher Education Act. This Act permitted inmates, and other low income students, to apply for Pell grants to be used for college courses.

In addition to increased educational opportunities for prisoners, the expansion of these programs provided many opportunities for research. The success of these programs was typically measured by two factors – the rate of re-arrest and the individual’s ability to obtain and maintain employment upon release. Results consistently indicated that higher education reduces an individual’s chances of returning to crime. Individuals who benefited from college courses in prison also found better jobs and held these jobs for longer periods of time. It is clear that these factors work together to reduce recidivism – those more education find stable employment which makes them less likely to commit crime (Batiuk, Moke, and Rountree, 1997).

Prisoners applied for Pell grants under the same criteria as those outside prison. Pell grants are non-competitive, need-based federal funds that are available to all qualifying low-income individuals who plan to attend college degree programs. For qualifying individuals in correctional facilities, the average Pell grant award was less than $1,300 per year. The total percentage of the program’s annual budget that was spent on inmate higher education was 1/10 of 1%. Although the cost was relatively low, the idea of providing Pell grants to prisoners was somewhat controversial and some argued for the elimination of these grants.

Despite evidence supporting the connection between higher education and lowered recidivism, the U.S. Congress included a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 which eliminated Pell grants for prisoners. Politicians argued that grants to inmates were provided at the expense of law-abiding students. This flawed argument, coupled with a belief that prison life was too “soft,” resulted in the elimination of Pell grants to prisoners. Ironically, the “get tough on crime” mentality had eliminated an extremely effective crime reduction tool.

The elimination of Pell grants had a devastating effect. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates. By 1997 only 8 programs remained. In the 1993-94 school year over 25,000 students in correctional facilities were recipients of Pell grants. Although Pell grants were not the only source of revenue for these programs, the grants provided a predictable flow of money that was relied upon for the continued functioning of programs. Since there was no source for replacement funds, programs were forced to abandon efforts to provide college courses in prison. In nearly every case, the individual’s education abruptly ended as funds were denied.

Ironically, in the 1990’s we also began to see a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff between corrections and education spending. New York, for example, steadily increased its Department of Corrections budget by 76 percent to $761 million. During the same period, the state decreased funding to university systems by 28 percent, to $615 million. Much of the increase in corrections spending was the result of longer prison terms and the need for increased prison construction. Research by the RAND Corporation demonstrates that crime prevention is more cost-effective than building prisons and that of all crime prevention methods; education is the most cost-effective (Greenwood, 1996). Policies that focused on increasingly punitive incarceration, for longer periods of time, were not having the desired impact on crime prevention.

Benefits of Corrections Education

In 2000, the total number of prisoners in federal or state facilities was almost 1.4 million. Nearly 600,000 inmates were released in 2000, either unconditionally or under conditions of parole. Many of those released will be rearrested and will return to prison. Costs of this cycle of incarceration and reincarceration are very high. Corrections education has the potential to greatly reduce these costs. For example, one study indicated that those who benefited from correctional education recidivated 29% less often that those who did not have educational opportunities while in the correctional institution (Steurer, Smith, and Tracy, 2001). Even small reductions in recidivism can save millions of dollars in costs associated with keeping the recidivist offender in prison for longer periods of time. Additional costs are apparent when we consider that the individual, had he or she not committed another crime, would be working, paying taxes, and making a positive contribution to the economy. When we add the reduction of costs, both financial and emotional, to victims of crime, the benefits are even greater. Finally, the justice system as a whole, including police and courts, can save a great deal of money when the crime rate is reduced.

A 1987 Bureau of Prisons report found that the more education an inmate received, the lower the rate of recidivism. Inmates who earned college degrees were the least likely to reenter prison. For inmates who had some high school, the rate of recidivism was 54.6 percent. For college graduates the rate dropped to 5.4 percent. Similarly, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice study found that while the state’s overall rate of recidivism was 60 percent, for holders of college associate degrees it was 13.7 percent. The recidivism rate for those with Bachelor’s degrees was 5.6 percent. The rate for those with Master’s degrees was 0 percent.

Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum-Security Prison (Fine et. al, 2001) was the first major study to examine the impact of college in prison since Pell grants were eliminated. This study was conducted at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s only maximum-security women’s prison. The Changing Minds study demonstrated that college prison programs can save taxpayers millions of dollars. Evidence from this study demonstrated that college prison programs transforms lives, reduces recidivism, creates safer prisons and communities, and significantly reduces the need for tax dollars spent on prisons.

The Changing Minds study found that only 7.7% of the inmates who took college courses at Bedford Hills returned to prison after release, while 29.9% of the inmates who did not participate in the college program were reincarcerated. The study calculates that this reduction in reincarceration would save approximately $900,000 per 100 student prisoners over a two-year period. If we project these savings to the 600,000 prison releases in a single year, the saving are enormous. When we consider the high cost of imprisonment, the increasing prison population, and the increasing number of individuals released from prison at the end of their sentences, education programs provide a cost effective opportunity to reduce crime and the costs of crime.


The correctional facility provides a controlled educational setting for prisoners, many of whom are motivated students. Students in these programs evidence a wide range of potential and have had varying educational experiences. However, prison educators face many challenges. Inmates who choose to enroll in college courses are not necessarily any different from the typical university student. As in any college level course, the range of abilities can include very gifted students, students who face challenges, and students who have various motives for enrolling in college courses.

The educator’s challenge is compounded by the uniqueness of prison culture and the need for security. Prisons adhere to strict routines. These routines may not be ideal in an educational setting. College programs may also adhere to schedules that conflict with the requirements of correctional institutions. Inmates are often moved from one facility to another. This movement interrupts, or ends, the individual’s educational programming. These structural issues are accompanied by social factors that can further limit learning opportunities. Prison culture can be very different in different facilities, or even in different parts of a single facility. For example, other prisoners may not support the educational efforts of prisoners. Prison administrators may also have varying degrees of support for education – especially if they see education as a threat to the primary functions of security and control.


Most studies indicate that an individual who benefits from college course while in prison is less likely to return to prison than someone who has not taken college courses while in prison. There is some question as to why these courses cause lower recidivism. Many of the benefits of a college education are difficult to measure. As such, it may be difficult to show a clear relationship between educational opportunity and recidivism. However, an intervening factor, the ability to find and hold a job, appears to clearly demonstrate the benefits of college courses in prison. College education increases the likelihood of post-release employment, which reduces the chance of recidivism.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. The imprisonment binge over the last 20 years has created a situation where we are beginning to see prison releases at unprecedented levels. Due to strict sentencing guidelines, these prisoners have often served long terms and are released only when their terms have been completely served. Many are released unconditionally, without parole or other post-release supervision. Each of these individuals will be expected to begin leading a productive, law abiding life outside prison walls. Access to a quality education can increase their chance of success.

References and Suggested Readings

Batiuk, M, Moke, P.and Rounree, P. (1997). “Crime and Rehabilitation: Correctional Education as An Agent of Change – A Research Note,” Justice Quarterly, 14(1).

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002). “Key crime and justice facts at a glance.”

Currie, E. (1985). Confronting Crime: An American Challenge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fine, M., (2001) Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Gerber, J. and Fritsch, E. (1993). Prison Education and Offender Behavior: A Review of the Scientific Literature. Huntsville, TX: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division.

Greenwood, P.W., Model, K.E., Rydell, C.P. and Chiesa, J. (1996). Diverting children from a life of crime: Measuring costs and benefits. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Haigler, K. O.; Harlow, C.; O’Connor, P.; and Campbell, A. (1994). Literacy Behind Prison Walls. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Harer, M. (1995). “Prison Education Program Participation and Recidivism: A Test of the Normalization Hypothesis,” Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.

LoBuglio, S. (2001). “Time to reframe politics and practices in correctional education.” In J. Comings, B. garner and C. Smith (Eds.), Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Vol.2. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Steurer, S., Smith, L., Tracy, A. (2001). “Three State Recidivism Study”. Prepared for the Office of Correctional Education, US Department of Education. Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association.

Stevens, D. and Ward, C., (1997). “College Education and Recidivism: Educating Criminals Meritorious,” Journal of Correctional Education, 48(3).

Taylor, J.M. (1993). Pell Grants for prisoners. The Nation, January 25.

Taylor, J.M. (1992). “Post Secondary Correctional Education: An Evaluation of Effectiveness and Efficiency,” Journal of Correctional Education, 43(3).

Tolbert, M. (2002). “State Correctional Education Programs.” Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education (1995). “Pell Grants and the incarcerated.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education (1994). “The Impact of Correctional Education on Recidivism 1988-1994,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Worth, R. (1995). “A model prison.” The Atlantic Monthly, November.