How HBCUs Are Creating a College Pipeline for Formerly Incarcerated Students

To reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, colleges are creating access for formerly incarcerated students. Learn how these programs are flipping the script.
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  • Black Americans are incarcerated at far higher rates than most other groups.
  • The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well in the American public school system.
  • Prison-to-college programs can help solve systemic issues around education and incarceration.
  • People participating in prison-to-college programs are likely to benefit in ways other than a degree.

As a result of centuries of accumulated racial prejudice and injustice, Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white Americans, according to CNN. This phenomenon has, unfortunately, changed the educational landscape of Black American communities. However, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are stepping in to correct the academic shortcomings of incarcerated Black folks.

By extending admissions to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, HBCUs are not only making college more accessible; they are also enacting education as a tool for Black liberation. These are the programs powering the "prison-to-college" pipeline. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline is a common route that begins in the public education system. Schools that serve mainly underprivileged neighborhoods often have poor funding. Because of the lack of resources, these schools sometimes fail to properly educate their students. According to the ACLU, this leads to lower student retention rates, more suspensions and expulsions, and poor educational outcomes.

These schools are also often understaffed, leaving students who are suspended or expelled and moved to alternative schools without the additional support they need to address deficiencies or necessary remediation. School-based arrests are also more common at underfunded schools because disciplinary action is outsourced to police officers, some of whom are stationed at the schools.

Consequently, students are funneled directly into the juvenile system. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 24% of children in the juvenile system were reincarcerated within a year as of 2020. The stigma against formerly incarcerated people, especially those who have committed felonies, weighs heavily against college applicants. College students with criminal records may also be prevented from accessing financial aid depending on the offense.

Many of those who are or were incarcerated have also suffered in their education because of the school-to-prison pipeline, making college a choice that is difficult academically, as well as socially and financially.

Five Ways College Pipeline Programs Benefit Formerly Incarcerated Students

In 2014, the University of Mississippi began the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program (PTCPP). The Prison Policy Initiative reports that Mississippi holds the highest average incarceration rate in the world. And over half of those incarcerated in the state are Black, according to Vera. Due to those statistics, the University of Mississippi moved to create the PTCPP, which helps incarcerated people in the program earn GED certificates and obtain college-level credits.

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    Increased Education

    The most apparent benefit to programs like the PTCPP is education. Literacy rates among those who are incarcerated are poor. According to the Early Literacy Foundation, 70% of people in prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. The education level is also low. A 2019 study by New America indicates that only 15% of adults in prison possess a postsecondary degree or certificate or earned one while incarcerated.
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    Reduced Stigma for Applicants

    Prison-to-college programs can help reduce the stigma associated with currently or formerly incarcerated people in academic settings. Some states now require colleges and universities to eliminate requirements that bar potential students with criminal histories from applying. Integrating formerly or currently incarcerated learners into educational programs will also help reduce the overall stigma against them.
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    Better Treatment of Incarcerated People

    The treatment of people in jails and prisons is horrific in many cases. Creating more prison-to-college pipelines will endorse the humanity of incarcerated folks, break the barriers that prevent them from receiving education in the prison system, and establish more educational resources for this population.
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    Accessible Coursework

    Programs like the PTCPP will not only help students in prisons but also help students who do not have convictions. Building prison-to-college pipeline programs requires flexibility in a curriculum and encourages professors to become familiar with offering accommodations for nontraditional students. This means other nontraditional learners, like commuters and parents, will also significantly benefit.
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    People who are incarcerated are often dehumanized, both inside and outside carceral institutions. Ensuring they have access to education and the opportunity to obtain degrees can help them build, maintain, or regain their sense of self-worth, not only because of the value society places on higher education but also because they can achieve their aspirations.


Aside from the PTCPP, a few other programs, like John Jay College's P2CP and the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative, are working to reinforce the prison-to-college pipeline. These programs are just the first wave of the social awakening surrounding the rights of incarcerated people.

In the future, these programs may lead to a broader awareness of the issues formerly and currently incarcerated people face. Even now, progressive movements for equity and inclusion are increasingly fighting for the enfranchisement of this population. With the installation of programs like the PTCPP across the nation, incarcerated folks are closer to gaining access to education. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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