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College classes in prison can unlock an eager, committed group of potential learners.

As the pool of high school seniors declines nationally, prisons represent an especially promising new source of potential students. Incarcerated individuals can succeed as college students, and higher education—if provided thoughtfully and equitably—can make a huge difference in their lives and the lives of others.

Officials in New Jersey estimate that, if offered college-preparatory classes, incarcerated people able to do college work might represent as much as 20 percent of the current prison population. If, by extension, even 10 percent of the people in the nation’s prison system could succeed in college, that would amount to 180,000 graduates—a number greater than the combined enrollment of the nation’s three largest universities.

This isn’t some sort of watered-down version of “real college.” Recently, the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison published a report that lays out a series of principles for ensuring quality in prison-based higher education programs. At a minimum, in-prison college programs should be built on three main pillars:

  1. Postsecondary-level courses should be offered, and students should be fully accepted into the college. These are not classes meant to “expose students to college,” nor are they classes on contemporary topics designed for general appeal, as often happens with non-credit adult classes. These courses should be the nuts and bolts of a college education. There should be no consequential difference between the content of a class offered inside a prison and that same class offered at a regular campus setting. Any differences should be intentional—made to accommodate the security needs of the prison or to better meet the particular needs and circumstances of these learners. By fully accepting students who enter these classes, colleges commit themselves to helping in-prison students earn a credential, just as they would for any other student admitted to study.
  2. Courses should be offered in a sequence that allows a student to pursue a degree and eventual employment. A main benefit any student receives from college is the pathway toward a certificate or degree leading to a lifelong career. While it may be said that the main purpose of getting an education is, in fact, to be educated, this should not detract from the fact that the decision to go to college is a decision to opt for a particular kind of life and career. This is as true for an incarcerated student as it is for any other.
  3. For students who do not complete a credential while incarcerated, there should be supports that help them continue their education upon release. Some students will be able to complete their programs while inside. However, the median length of stay in prison is about 30 months. So, for most students, completing a degree while inside prison is unrealistic; they must continue their studies after release. Such students need a bridging system to on-campus study—one that works with parole systems while also providing the practical supports that can help them re-enter society. One of the reasons for colleges to fully accept incarcerated students is that it ensures their admission to continued study on campus.

Fiscal and administrative considerations

Understandably, one of the questions administrators have about mounting a college program in the state’s prison system is how to absorb its programmatic costs and administrative burden. Often, prison-based programs are budgeted as if they are separate from the rest of the college’s agenda. This type of independent budgeting is often used when colleges mount new programs, and it’s required if those programs are funded by external grants. Such an approach has two fiscal implications. First, the costs of teaching and services are typically calculated as an independent university activity. Second, students are billed for tuition and fees at the established rate—and because these students typically lack sufficient funds, the college must find some way to balance the books. All of this can make in-prison programs seem quite expensive.

But there are many ways in which this kind of budgeting overstates the costs borne by a college that offers an in-prison program. For example, standard tuition and fees vastly overcharge the incarcerated learner. Colleges typically calculate that at least half of tuition goes to pay for classrooms, labs, grounds, security, athletics, and student life—none of which benefit incarcerated students. If charged full tuition, these individuals are, in effect, subsidizing on-campus students.

Typically, in-prison classes are taught by part-time or adjunct faculty, who are paid accordingly. The added administrative costs are often overstated, too. If no new staff are hired for registration, financial aid, or advisement, the additional real cost is near zero. Undoubtedly, there are costs associated with creating and offering a prison-based degree program. This is rarely undertaken without at least some new hiring. But only the marginal additional costs should be counted as program costs, and it’s inaccurate—and unfair—to charge incarcerated students at the rate paid by on-campus students.

Finally, the revenues generated by students in prison need to be included in the calculations. Though nearly all incarcerated students lack the means to pay for their education while they are confined, any college with a robust transition program for these students will realize new revenues when they continue their studies upon release. For example, a college that charges $10,000 in tuition and fees and welcomes 10 students each year from its in-prison program will realize $100,000 in additional revenue from those students every year—a significant new revenue stream.

A New Agenda for Higher Education in Prison

Prisoners are citizens. Moreover, they are citizens whose life trajectory is of particular interest to society. This is the core idea behind providing higher education in prison: College transforms lives. For those with criminal histories, these changes can make the difference between a life on the edge and a stable home and career.

For institutions of higher education that value students who have historically found it difficult to gain access to college, there can often be no more impactful group than those who are incarcerated. For states seeking to increase their number of credentialed residents, the incarcerated can represent an eager, committed group of potential learners.

As study after study has shown, prison-based higher education is among the most effective, cost-efficient, and life-changing interventions for incarcerated populations. As states look to improve rates of post-high school education, especially among people of color, providing higher education in prison should be considered a vital component of a comprehensive talent plan.


Todd R. Clear is a distinguished professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University–Newark.

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Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. We envision a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. Our goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy. Through our work and our partners’ efforts, we lift people out of poverty, reduce racial inequality, improve health and well-being, promote the availability of good jobs and economic growth, and build sustainable communities.