Magazine Research Corner

Education Liberates

How colleges and universities can help the US break free of mass incarceration

Spring 2024

The numbers are more than grim: the United States has the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 70 percent of convictions leading to incarceration, when it comes to criminal justice, the US is more in line with authoritarian countries, such as Russia and Turkey, than with other democracies.

But as Sonya Christian, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, has pointed out in these pages, higher education offers an important way to help solve the crisis. Research shows that incarcerated people who participate in higher ed programs have a 48 percent lower chance of returning to prison once they leave than formerly incarcerated people who do not participate in such programs. With lower recidivism comes smaller prison populations and safer communities. In addition, when incarcerated people gain postsecondary education, they leave prison prepared to apply for more job opportunities than before they entered. And for each dollar invested in education in prison programs, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, four to five taxpayer dollars are saved in incarceration costs.

One major step to boosting higher ed efforts in prison came in July 2023 when Congress restored eligibility for federal Pell Grants—which offer need-based assistance to low-income students—to incarcerated people for the first time since 1994. With this change, an estimated 760,000 people became eligible for Pell support and will have more ability to enroll in higher ed programs. Currently, 465 colleges and universities are working to educate people in prisons across the United States, according to the Alliance in Higher Education. Here’s a look at some of the ways academic institutions can and are making a difference.

Download a PDF of the full spring 2024 Research Corner.

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