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Why Prisoners Want a Higher Education, and the Barriers They Face

Individuals in the criminal justice system face extraordinary barriers to higher education and the economic and civic opportunities it provides

December 1, 2019

For the past two years, AAC&U has urged its members to “ban the box” in higher education by eliminating questions about criminal justice involvement from student applications. AAC&U also supported Congress in attempts to expand higher education opportunities for incarcerated students while still in prison.

Two new reports shine a spotlight on barriers to higher education while adults are in prison or after they are released with a criminal record. In both instances, the reports found that individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system face extraordinary barriers to higher education and the economic and civic opportunities it provides.

Access to Education after Prison

Nearly a third of American adults (29.5 percent, or 73.5 million) have criminal records, according to FBI statistics. These adults, disproportionately people of color, face hurdles in their access to higher education, future income and earning potential, housing availability, and family stability.

In a new study published in the journal Criminology, study subjects with similar academic records were paired off to apply to nonselective four-year institutions. In each pair, the subjects had the same racial background (identifying as either white or black) but had different criminal justice histories.

According to the report, “the rejection rate for applicants with felony convictions was nearly 2.5 times the rate of our control testers.” The study also found disparities in rejection rates between black and white applicants, especially at campuses that experienced a lot of crime.

“Black applicants with criminal records were particularly penalized when disclosing a felony record at colleges with high campus crime rates,” the report said.

Hurdles and Opportunities for Incarcerated Adults

A new survey by Monique O. Ositelu for New America, Equipping Individuals for Life Beyond Bars: The Promise of Higher Education & Job Training in Closing the Gap in Skills for Incarcerated Adults, examined the experiences, aspirations, and barriers of higher education for adults in prison. The New America survey included 8,670 responses from the general public and 1,319 responses from adults incarcerated in federal or state prison.

  • Incarcerated adult respondents were predominantly male (93 percent), younger than forty-five (72 percent), and people of color (60 percent). These figures far outpace the proportion of these demographic groups in the general US population.
  • Most incarcerated adults (57 percent) “expect to be released from prison in fewer than two years,” the report said, while 94 percent expect to be released at some point. Six percent will likely never be released.

Incarcerated Adults Face Gaps in Educational and Skill Attainment

  • According to the New America survey, more than half (55 percent) of incarcerated adults have a high school diploma or equivalent credential like the GED, making them eligible to participate in higher education programs in prison.
  • However, just 15 percent have a degree or certificate beyond high school, compared to 45 percent of the general population.
  • The report also found a “statistically significant gap in [literacy and numeracy] skills between incarcerated individuals and the general public,” which can limit employment opportunities after leaving prison. However, it found strong evidence “that completing postsecondary education and participating in job training while in prison closes the gaps in literacy and numeracy skills between the incarcerated population and the general public” (see figure 1).

Figure 1.

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Many Adults in Prison Want to Enroll in Higher Education, but Can’t

  • The New America survey found that the majority of incarcerated adults (69 percent) expressed interest “in enrolling in a postsecondary degree or certificate,” the report said.
  • However, less than half (42 percent) earn a degree, diploma, or certificate of any kind while in prison. Most of these prison education programs focus on high school–level degrees or vocational certificates.
  • Twenty-one percent of adults in prison said they were enrolled in a postsecondary degree or certificate program, but just 2 percent of incarcerated adults earn an associate’s degree while in prison, and less than 1 percent earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • According to the report, students of color are less likely to complete their degrees while in prison than white students.
  • According to one survey respondent in prison, “There is a wealth of interest in bachelor’s degrees but we are limited by the milestone of only getting an associate's. There are not enough opportunities to go beyond associate's while we are in here.”

Why Prisoners Want Education, and the Barriers They Face

  • Adults in prison were most likely to say they wanted to take college classes to increase knowledge or skills on a topic that interested them (31 percent) or to increase job opportunities after their release (27 percent).
  • A quarter (25 percent) are on a waiting list to enroll in an academic class, and others cited several different barriers. Many don’t find the offered classes useful, lack qualifications to enroll, don’t want to give up other volunteer or work opportunities, want to enroll in classes at a higher level than the ones offered, or think the programs are low quality (see figure 2).

Figure 2.

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What Can Higher Education Do to Help Incarcerated Students?

The New America report cited several steps that higher education institutions or public policy makers can take to improve educational access and attainment for incarcerated adults:

  • Provide more opportunities and choices for “quality postsecondary education and meaningful job training.”
  • When prisoners begin to prepare for reentry a year or two before their release, make education and training part of the process.
  • Make Second Chance Pell Grants available for all incarcerated students, without the current preference for students nearing release, as current practices may disproportionately affect certain demographic groups.
  • Ensure students are “not harmed by the unintended consequences of Second Chance Pell,” such as students possibly wasting federal aid that will be unavailable after their release.