Five keys to financially responsible prison higher education programs
Prison Education

Five keys to financially responsible prison higher education programs

Image: College Behind Bars Part 3: ‘Every Single Word Matters.’

For society, investing in college in prison is a fiscal no-brainer. The benefits of college for people who are incarcerated are the same as anybody else, of course: productive work, contributions to the economy, and contributions to community life.

But for people who go to college while in prison, the changes in life-course trajectory surpass those of any other college demographic. Whatever good college does for people in prison, society has even more to gain by making college available to them—or rather, a lot to lose by not doing so.

The math is obvious: a person who has a good job and supports a family is a net fiscal and social asset to the entire community; a person at the margin of the job market, unable to support a family, possibly continuing to be in and out of the justice system, is the opposite. That is why college in prison, proven to transport people from the latter group to the former, is such a wise investment for society.

But what about colleges? Colleges and universities operate under resource constraints, with a fixed revenue picture that forces difficult choices across competing agendas. Does it make sense for a college to put its resources into educational initiatives for students in prison? How do colleges make such investments work?

There are five simple keys to a fiscally responsible approach to providing college to people in prison.

1. Charge tuition rates that reflect the actual costs of extending college to the prison setting

Colleges typically charge tuition rates for students in prison that are the same as on-campus students. But this is not fair to students in prison.

College tuition revenues pay for a lot more than classroom activities. They cover the cost of libraries, student services, college buildings and grounds, campus security, and a host of additional non-teaching college infrastructure. For most colleges, these non-instructional operating costs are half or more of the total operating budget. Students in prison are excluded from using most of these college assets: buildings, libraries, activities, and the like. Charging full tuition means, in effect, that they are subsidizing the costs of on-campus infrastructure that other students use but they cannot.

At the same time, prison-based college classes are generally less expensive to mount than on-campus courses. Typically, these classes are taught by part-time instructors at a lower cost than on-campus courses.

Thus, to be fair, students in prison should be billed at a tuition rate that is substantially lower than the charge for on-campus courses, certainly less than half and possibly significantly so.

One way to determine the correct tuition rate is to calculate the per-credit marginal costs of the in-college courses. In this approach, all additional costs incurred to mount the prison program are calculated, and they are divided by the number of student credit hours offered. To illustrate, let us say that annual additional staff, faculty, and materials costs for an in-prison college initiative comes to $720,000. These resources enable the college to offer 80 3-credit classes annually, with an average of 15 students in each class. The program, then is generating 3600 credits at the cost of $200 per credit. Under this accounting, a student should be able to take a 3-credit course for $600, and a full-time, 12-credit load for $2400. This is, of course, considerably less than on-campus students would generally pay. But if in-prison students pay any more than this amount, they are paying for services that were not created expressly to offer the courses they are taking—they are subsidizing services the university already created to serve other students.

2. Institute program fiscal efficiencies.

There are important ways of containing the costs of in-prison college programs. The most significant strategy is integration. When the services of the registrar, financial aid, and academic counseling are provided by the existing offices tasked with these functions, the added costs of college in prison can be minimized. Likewise, cost efficiencies for in-prison programs can be created by:

  • partnerships with community colleges for core academic courses, which reduce the cost of these classes;
  • full-time faculty teaching in prison on load, controlling the cost of new classes;
  • offering inside-out style classes bringing full tuition-paying students into the fiscal picture;
  • transitioning students from in-prison study to on-campus study, adding new resources to the college bottom line (see below);

As a general principle, the more integrated an in-prison program is with the general college infrastructure, the less additional funding it requires.

3. Matriculate the students as fully enrolled students.

Accepting students as matriculating for degree-based study has three important advantages. First, it creates the correct relationship between the institution and the students in prison. They are not recipients of charity; they are members of the college’s student body. This status commits the college to their educational success the same as any other student.

Second, it makes them potentially eligible for various forms of student aid. Some colleges now receive Pell Grant funds for in-prison students. Others allow designated scholarship funds to be used for these students.

Some people believe that it is unfair for people in prison to get “free “college, when every other student has to pay for college. If people in prison should pay for their college, then it is manifestly unfair to preclude students in prison from having access to the sources of funds other students, particularly poor students, use to pay for college. Allowed to access the funds that other students use, students inside prison can pay for their education. For example, if the Pell is provided at the rate of $100 per credit ($1200 for a full-time schedule) and state aid matches that amount, the program described above is fully self-supporting with student-generated resources with very conservative commitments of existing funding sources.

4. Recruit students to campus to finish their studies when they are released from prison.

The third advantage of matriculation is that it makes the transition to study on campus easier. This is partly a technical issue—students already admitted to campus study face fewer hurdles in continuing their studies once they are released from prison. But it is also a matter of identity. People who are accepted as matriculated students while in prison find it easier to envision themselves on campus once they are released from prison.

Moving students to on-campus study upon release from prison has important financial implications for college-in-prison. While students inside prison almost never have the funds to pay for their education, every student who, upon release from prison, attends college as an on-campus student, represents an entirely new stream of revenue produced by the in-prison work. One of the most important ways to make college programs in prison fiscally reasonable is to make sure students transition to on-campus study upon their release from prison. Scale matters. If a college whose tuition and fees are $10,000 annually accepts 15 formerly incarcerated students a year as full-timers, and these students each attend for 2 years to complete their degrees, then the 30 additional students on campus represent $300,000 in new revenues. As the numbers grow, the revenues grow.

5. Maximize the benefits of an in-prison college program.

A college that offers its courses in a prison can parlay that work into a host of assets that become available to students and faculty: Inside-out style classes enrich the college experience for on-campus students, new research and practicum opportunities become available, tutoring and other volunteer opportunities open up, many teachers love the opportunity to teach classes in prison, and universities appreciate the public communication prospects that these programs open up. These assets become particularly available to in-prison programs that are deeply integrated into the college.

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

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