Prison Education Programs: Facts and Statistics
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
The rate of college course participation in prison halved from 1991-2004 following the 1994 Crime Bill, which banned incarcerated individuals from receiving Pell Grants.
Nearly 30 years after the original ban, incarcerated individuals finally have access to federal financial aid to help pay for higher education as of July 1, 2023.
In the 1990s, there were nearly 1,000 programs, but by 2005, just 12 college programs in 12 prisons remained., 
It is exceedingly rare for incarcerated folks to get their bachelor's in prison — the number is virtually 0% per year.
The top reasons incarcerated adults enrolled in an academic program in 2014 were to learn more about a subject of interest and increase job opportunities.
Those who participated in education programs had a 43% lower chance of recidivating than incarcerated individuals who did not.
Every dollar spent on correctional education saves taxpayers five dollars on reincarceration costs.Note Reference 
As of July 1, 2023, incarcerated individuals now have access to federal Pell Grants to put towards their education. The news comes nearly 30 years after the original Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that excluded anyone serving time in prison from receiving federal financial aid.
This data report covers the Pell Grant timeline, incarceration costs, prison education programs, and prison education recidivism rates.
Table of Contents
Prison Education History and Timeline
1960s-1970s: Pell Grants Expand Access to Education
Pell Grants are federal financial aid packages based on exceptional financial need. Unlike loans, they do not typically have to be repaid.
Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, incarcerated folks became eligible to receive Pell Grants to pay for college courses.Note Reference  Pell Grants gave many incarcerated people access to postsecondary education they would not have otherwise been able to afford.
1980s: Prison Education System Grows
According to a historical overview by the American Enterprise Institute citing the Saint Louis University Prison Initiative:
- In 1982 there were approximately 350 college-in-prison programs with 27,000 incarcerated participants — 9% of the total prison population.Note Reference 
- By the 1990s, the prison education system grew to 772 programs in 1,287 facilities, according to Ellen Lagemann's 2014 book “Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison.”Note Reference 
1990s-2000s: Crime Bill Brings Prison Education Programs to Near Extinction
Prison education program growth came to a sudden halt when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was signed. People serving time in prison were excluded from receiving Pell Grant aid despite the fact that incarcerated people took up just 0.006% of Pell Grant spending.
During this time, the number of people in prisons increased by nearly 450%, going from 17,000 incarcerated individuals in 1995 to 93,000 in 2000. This was due to new sentencing guidelines that increased minimum sentences for repeat offenders and gave out mandatory sentences.
Meanwhile, the number of prison education programs plummeted and nearly disappeared.
- The rate of college course participation in prison halved from 1991-2004.Note Reference 
- By 2005, just 12 college programs in 12 prisons remained.Note Reference 
2015-2023: Second Chance Pell Grant Access
In 2015, the Obama-Biden administration launched a second chance program that piloted Pell Grants at specific universities. In 2020, Congress passed the act that would grant all incarcerated folks access to Pell Grants once again.
Nearly 30 years after the original ban, incarcerated individuals finally have access to federal financial aid to pay for higher education in prison as of July 1, 2023.
Incarcerated Student Statistics
Incarcerated individuals often come from impoverished backgrounds. In 2014 dollars, they had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration — 41% less than non-incarcerated adults. The gap in income prior to incarceration is also reflected in educational attainment levels. Many incarcerated individuals come with lower levels of educational attainment prior to incarceration.
Education Levels of Incarcerated Adults
Levels of educational attainment were much lower for those who were incarcerated.
- In 2014, 1% of incarcerated adults had a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree.Note Reference 
- This was much lower than the 11% of non-incarcerated U.S. adults who had graduate or professional degrees and the 17% who had bachelor's degrees.Note Reference 
- Among all U.S. adults, 14% had below a high school level education. Among incarcerated people, the figure was 30%.Note Reference 
Educational Attainment in Prison
Three in five incarcerated adults did not further their education level in 2014. This means nearly 60% of incarcerated adults had the same level of education they entered prison with.Note Reference 
It is exceedingly rare for incarcerated folks to get their bachelor's — to the point that the figure is virtually 0%.Note Reference 
Reasons for Enrolling
Learning more about a subject of interest and increasing job opportunities were the top two reasons incarcerated adults enrolled in an academic program in 2014 — accounting for 80% of all reasons.Note Reference 
Those who wanted to participate in job training programs had similar top reasons.
- 63% said their main reason to participate was for self-improvement.Note Reference 
- 43% said it was to increase the possibilities of getting a job when released.Note Reference 
- 18% said it was to increase the possibilities of getting a prison assignment.Note Reference 
Incarcerated adults' reasons for not enrolling in an academic program varied widely. One in 10 did not have qualifications necessary to enroll, such as a GED.
How Effective Is Prison Education?
Each year, over 700,000 incarcerated individuals are released from federal and state prisons. Roughly 280,000 — or 40% — of those who leave are expected to return within three years.Note Reference 
Education Lowers Recidivism Rates by 43%
Those who participated in education programs had a 43% lower chance of recidivating than incarcerated individuals who did not.Note Reference  Participating in education programs also increased the chances of obtaining employment post-release by 13%.
Every Dollar Spent on Prison Education Saves Taxpayers $5
While expanding access to education in prisons may lower recidivism rates, people may worry it will increase costs. The reality is that keeping people behind bars is more costly.
It cost an average of $106,131 to incarcerate an individual in a California prison in 2021-2022.
According to a 2014 report by the nonprofit research institution RAND Corporation, every dollar spent on correctional education saves taxpayers $5 on reincarceration costs.Note Reference  This figure is likely much higher due to increased incarceration costs during the COVID-19 pandemic related to health and security.
Paying for College in Prison
Incarcerated workers typically make a few cents per hour or sometimes nothing at all. This makes paying for their own education a nearly impossible endeavor without outside help.
Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program founder and executive director Lori Pompa told BestColleges that it is very rare to have incarcerated students pay.
Course costs typically have to do with whether a student will be receiving college credit or not. If there is no credit involved, the class is
essentially a free experience. The schools that are giving credit will sometimes
outright pay for the credit or
absorb the credit costs.
The cost of course materials is also covered in creative ways. Sometimes instructors will create reading packets and make them available to be printed. In one instance, people contacted publishers, shared details about the prison education program, and then got free copies of the book.
Colleges sponsoring prison education programs primarily run on private donations. This is the case with Pitzer College's prison education program, which covers the costs of roughly $10,000 per student, per year. With federal aid becoming available, Pompa expects there to be a big rise in programs again.
Learn more about scholarships for prison education.
Prison Education Challenges
Even with Pell Grant access, other obstacles pose challenges for students in prisons.
Possibility of Release or Being Transferred
Being transferred from one correctional facility to another, or being released from prison are common disruptors for someone in postsecondary prison education. In a rare instance, one formerly incarcerated student was able to finish their degree on the college campus after release.
As reported by the Georgia Public Broadcast, Inside-Out Program alumnus Kenny Butler was able to finish his degree on the Pitzer College campus after an anonymous donor covered his tuition and living costs — which came out to be roughly $30,000 per year.Note Reference 
Blocked Access to Internet
Access to the internet remains largely blocked in correctional facilities. According to a 2014 survey conducted by RAND Corporation:
- Incarcerated individuals had zero access to the internet in 26 states.Note Reference 
- In 30 states, only teachers and instructors had access to the internet.Note Reference 
- Only 16 states allowed incarcerated students to access the internet in any capacity.Note Reference 
This makes it difficult for incarcerated students to partake in research or contact their instructors for questions.
Stigma of a Criminal Record
Even with an education, gaining employment remains a challenge for formerly incarcerated people. The Prison Policy Initiative puts the unemployment rate at around 60%.
According to a 2003 series of surveys conducted in four major U.S. cities, employers were more against hiring ex-offenders than any other marginalized group.Note Reference 
There is a growing movement to
ban the box, in which candidates would no longer have to reveal their criminal histories at the time of a job application. You can learn more about banning the box efforts by visiting the National Employment Law Project page.