Guide to Prison Education

TBS Staff Writers
Updated January 3, 2024
Learn how inmates and ex-offenders can improve their chances of earning a college degree with our guide on prison education.

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Prison College Programs

Prison education is a proven strategy for reducing criminal recidivism and improving economic opportunities for individuals serving prison sentences as well as former inmates transitioning into civilian life. However, access to opportunities for education in prison remain limited. Prisoners seeking college degrees have very few options. Likewise, ex-offenders face a number of practical obstacles, including strict limitations on access to financial aid. In spite of these limitations and obstacles, inmates and ex-offenders who can find ways to receive an education and earn a degree may dramatically improve their future prospects. Read on for a look at educational opportunities for inmates and ex-offenders, the limitations placed on these opportunities, and tips for making the most of the programs that are available.

Education in prison is more than just a way to pass the hours while serving a criminal sentence. Prison education is a way to significantly reduce the likelihood that a temporary jail sentence will turn into a lifetime inside the prison system. Education is among the strongest remedies for the endemic problem of criminal recidivism. And there is persuasive evidence that the higher your level of education, the lower your likelihood of returning to criminal activity or incarceration. And yet, there are severe limits on educational access for both inmates and ex-offenders. For more than 2.3 million U.S. inmates — the largest prison population in the world — these limits include barriers to college-level courses, financial aid, and internet access.

To learn how inmates and ex-offenders can improve their chances of earning a college degree, read on:

What is Prison Education?

Prison Education can fit under a wide range of categories, from basic literacy and vocational training to rehabilitation, physical education, and the arts. Prison education also includes programs that allow, or even require, prisoners to pursue a GED or high school equivalency, as well as programs that create access to college courses, either onsite or through mailed correspondence. The vast majority of prison education programs are conducted onsite at both state and federal prison facilities.

Educational opportunities for inmates and ex-offenders produce clear and demonstrable value by creating access to practical training and academic degrees. This post-secondary education can translate into future employment opportunities, heightened earning potential, and reducing tendencies toward recidivism. Inmates who earn a GED (high school diploma equivalency) are less likely to relapse into criminal behavior and incarceration. Even less likely to relapse are those who earn a college degree.

This is because education and degree attainment can help mitigate some of the sociological drivers of criminal behavior and incarceration, including economic disadvantage and racial inequality. The benefits of effective prison education also extend beyond individual inmates and ex-offenders. Lower levels of recidivism lead to safer neighborhoods, more vibrant communities, and a reduction of the burden that our enormous prison system imposes on U.S. taxpayers. Nonetheless, access to higher education remains inconsistent at best, and obstructed by severe limitations at worst.

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Prison education opportunities can vary from state to state, and from one type of facility to another. In most contexts though, inmates must work within strict parameters. To earn an academic degree while serving a prison sentence, one must manage education responsibilities while adhering to considerable limits on freedom, movement, and access. Most federal and state inmates lack regular internet access, which makes it difficult to attend online courses or earn a degree from an online college. These limitations are further compounded by the high cost of college, the declining rate of public moneys allotted for post-secondary education in prison, and the high hurdle that inmates and ex-offenders must clear to receive student aid.

In spite of these limitations, prisoners at both the federal and state levels do have access to a high school education. In fact, at both the federal level and in most state prison systems, participation in some form of GED education is mandatory.

Post-secondary opportunities are less pervasive, but can take the form of both vocational certifications and academic degrees. Vocational certification programs — geared toward practical and technical skills training—are far more commonplace than academic degrees. These programs are also far more likely to be subsidized through public funding than are associate degree or bachelor’s degree programs.

With that said, some states have shown leadership in producing academic opportunities for inmates. States with the highest concentration of inmate students — like California and Texas — have offered ample proof that inmates with post-secondary academic degrees are among the least likely demographics to return to prison.

Indeed, while access and affordability remain obstacles, those state prison systems that do create greater opportunities for educational attainment are seeing positive results. The resources below are designed to highlight the benefits of earning a college degree while in prison or after release, as well as identify some of the best ways that we can support both incarcerated persons and ex-offenders as they work toward a better future.

If you’d like to help shape the public policies impacting educational opportunities for inmates — especially as they relate to access to online courses and student aid —  consider working toward a degree in Public Policy.

Education in Prison vs. Recidivism

The best measure for the value of education in prison is criminal recidivism. Recidivism — an individual’s tendency to relapse into criminal behavior after release from a previous sentence — is among the most essential concepts in the field of criminal justice. According to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism is defined as criminal behavior that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release.

Recidivism is a permeating problem in the criminal justice system. The various factors that make individuals more prone to criminal conviction — economic circumstances, racial inequalities, education gaps, mental illness, addiction — are often intensified or magnified by an initial criminal conviction. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that a staggering 67.8% of prisoners tracked were rearrested within three years of their release, more than half of those landing back in a jail cell in less than one year.

While there are few antidotes to the complex cross-section of factors that make individuals more susceptible to criminal behavior and incarceration, access to education has proven as powerful a remedy as any.

According to the Prison Studies Project, prison education tends to significantly outperform other methods of rehabilitation — boot camps, shock incarceration, and even vocational training — when measured by recidivism.

The Prison Studies Project points out that 95% of people living in the prison population will eventually return to society. However, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, seven out of 10 will commit a new crime, and half will be back in prison, within three years. These are alarmingly incongruous statistics that suggest prisons are not doing enough to facilitate meaningful rehabilitation nor to help prepare felons for reentry into society.

And yet, academic education continues to produce meaningful results in the contexts where it has been allowed to flourish. In 2005, IHEP reported that the rates of recidivism were 46 percent lower for participants in prison education programs versus those who had taken no college courses. The report noted that these findings were also reinforced by more than a dozen studies dating to the ‘90s, which consequently demonstrated even longer-term reductions in recidivism.

These rates of reduced recidivism are also closely linked to level of educational attainment. A study conducted by the American Correctional Association in the state of Indiana revealed that the rate of recidivism was 20 percent lower for those who had earned their GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma); and 44 percent lower for those who had earned a college degree.

This suggests that earning a higher degree may reduce one’s likelihood of returning to criminal activity or incarceration. Greater educational attainment certainly creates greater opportunities for employment, improved skill sets for economic mobility, and stronger decision-making skills, particularly as they relate to compliance with the law. For society at large, improved educational opportunities in prison and reduced recidivism can contribute to lower crime rates, savings to taxpayers, and to safer and more vibrant communities. In other words, recidivism rates offer a compelling argument in favor of expanded opportunities for higher education in prisons, especially through avenues like online college.

Getting Your GED in Prison

For inmates and ex-offenders alike, earning a GED or high school diploma is a necessary step on the way to earning either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Evidence suggests that those who are in prison are far more likely to lack a high school diploma than the general U.S. population. Likewise, those who lack a high school diploma are more vulnerable to criminal behavior, incarceration, and recidivism.

According to the Center for American Progress, while more than 41% of the U.S population holds a high school diploma, only 18% of inmates hold a diploma. This means that for a great many inmates, earning a GED is a necessary starting point. For some inmates, this may also mean participating in some basic remedial courses including literacy training, or in the case of Non-English-speaking inmates, an equivalent English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons notes that literacy or ESL programs are mandatory for most federal inmates who haven’t graduated from high school or earned their GED. The Bureau indicates that inmates must typically take a minimum of 240 hours in literacy training or until they obtain their GED.

The majority of these programs are facilitated through onsite courses and are a required part of most prison rehabilitation strategies. In some instances, mail-in correspondence courses may also help facilitate the receipt of an online high school diploma or GED, though research suggests that inmates are less likely to achieve degree-completion through the slow and tedious mail-in process.

Online Diplomas for Ex-Offenders

For ex-offenders who are just beginning a new chapter in their lives, online GED programs offer great flexibility and access. This can be especially valuable for those working through parole programs, those with limitations on travel, and those managing new responsibilities in transitional employment settings.

Check out The 50 Best Online High School Diplomas and start working toward a diploma today.

Getting a College Degree in Prison

A 2011 report from IHEP notes that we lack systematically-collected data across all 50 states, which makes it difficult to measure the exact prevalence of Post-Secondary College Education (PSCE) opportunities for inmates.

The IHEP report references findings from 2008, indicating that somewhere between 35 and 42 percent of correctional facilities offer some type of PSCE access. The Center for American Progress echoes these findings, noting that only 35 percent of state prisons provide college-level courses, and these programs only serve six percent of incarcerated individuals nationwide.

This low rate of penetration can be attributed to several factors, including the above-noted reality that many inmates may lack basic academic skills or may be working toward a GED. However, limitations on access and affordability are also major — sometimes insurmountable — obstacles to post-secondary educational access among inmates.

This limited access is only magnified by the issue of cost. Financing a college education is hard enough for the average student. Limits in opportunities for financial aid can make the uphill climb even steeper for inmates. As of 2018, prison inmates received less than 1% of all Pell program funding. (Even those recipients were largely part of the Second Chance Pell Program, an Obama-era initiative that, according to the Department of Education, awarded “578 Certificates, Associates, and Bachelors graduates in prison, 34 graduates post incarceration, and 954 credentials” between 2016 and 2019. Still, for inmates in many states, higher education in prison isn’t an option. For many others, it may be an option, but one that is financially out of reach.

This is generally true for federal inmates as well. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, does provide access to publicly-funded vocational and job training programs. These opportunities are also expected to grow and improve for federal inmates since the 2018 passage of the Prison Reform Bill. Some traditional college-level courses may be accessible, but federal inmates are largely responsible for financing this education independently.

For inmates in states and facilities that do not provide onsite college-level options, the best option for earning college credits or working toward a degree may be through distance correspondence courses. Some colleges offer correspondence courses that are open to all. Others offer correspondence courses that are geared specifically to students in the correctional system.

Prison Education System identifies the programs that it considers the most accessible and hospitable to the needs of incarcerated students. In most cases, these colleges and universities use mail correspondence courses to facilitate learning, proctor exams, award credits, and furnish associate and bachelor’s degrees. As such, these colleges and universities offer undergraduate correspondence programs uniquely suited to the higher education needs of prisoners:

  • Adams State University
  • Andrews University
  • Ashworth College
  • Athabasca University
  • Brigham Young University
  • California Coast University
  • California Miramar University
  • Colorado State University
  • Colorado State University at Pueblo
  • Huntington College of Health Sciences
  • Louisiana State University
  • Murray State University
  • Ohio University
  • Oklahoma State University
  • Perelandra College
  • Rio Salado College
  • Sam Houston State University
  • Seattle Central Community College
  • Southwest University
  • Texas State University
  • Thomas Edison State
  • Thompson Rivers University
  • University of Central Arkansas
  • University of Idaho
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Mississippi
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Northern Iowa
  • University of Saskatchewan
  • University of Wisconsin
  • University of Wisconsin-Platteville
  • University of Wyoming
  • Upper Iowa University
  • Wesleyan Center for Prison Education

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Online College for Inmates

Unfortunately, severe limitations on internet access for inmates largely stand in the way of the full potential that could be revealed through online postsecondary opportunities. Many inmates do have opportunities for limited internet usage through a system called Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), a highly restricted form of web access that allows federal inmates, and inmates in some state facilities, to communicate with personal contacts in the outside world. The system does not make allowance for many other activities.

Sending and receiving emails through TRULINCS is a paid service, which additionally limits web access. In sum, this outlet does not provide access to educational services, including online courses and online college degree programs.

This is a missed opportunity, one that could change life and brighten the future for many individuals currently serving time in prison. The increased access and flexibility created by online courses and online degree programs is especially well-suited to the unique needs and obstacles facing inmates.

An IHEP reports that even within the relatively small population of inmates enrolled in post-secondary education — roughly 71,000 of more than two million incarcerated individuals — the number of inmates who are on track to earn an academic degree is even smaller and more concentrated.

According to the study’s findings, roughly three-quarters of incarcerated students are enrolled in vocational or certificate programs (as opposed to academic programs). Moreover, 86% of all incarcerated post-secondary students reside in these thirteen high-enrollment states:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

California in particular offers strong evidence that access to post-secondary academic degree programs yields demonstrably positive outcomes.

In 2014, San Quentin was the only prison in the state to offer onsite-instructed college classes. By 2017, 34 of the state’s 35 prisons offered some form of onsite college education. As of 2018, more than 4,500 of the state’s inmates had enrolled in courses for college credits.

According to a report from Corrections to College California — part of a joint initiative from the Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, most post-secondary instruction takes place onsite. There are some students engaged through mailed correspondence courses but, again, the results produced by onsite instruction are generally better. The report also points to the security protocols surrounding internet use for inmates as a primary obstacle to more widespread access.

The report also finds that budgetary constraints — which only continue to worsen for many state prison systems — stand in the way of expanded access. A more flexible approach to web access [PDF] could change this equation, paving the way for more cost-effective ways of distributing post-secondary academic education and online degrees.

Indeed, many online colleges are well-positioned to serve this student population and could dramatically scale up the capacity of state systems to offer access and clear pathways to academic degrees. Greater online access could also serve as the bridge between prison education and public university systems. Online college offers a clear path for formalizing the relationship between state educational systems, post-secondary opportunities for inmates, and job placement services for ex-offenders.

Online College Degrees for Ex-Offenders

For ex-offenders who are working toward reentry, one of the best options for earning a college degree may be through an online college or university. Depending on your release status, you may be working on a degree while managing limitations on your ability to travel as well as juggling work and personal responsibilities. Online college can offer flexibility, access and affordability as you navigate this new chapter in your life.

Take a look at this year’s Best Online Colleges and find out what steps you have to take to get started.

Financial Aid and Incarcerated Students

For many Americans, student aid is an important part of the college equation. Need-based grants and federal student loans exist to help students finance a higher education. While these grants and loans are meant to help all students who wish to seek a college education, criminal convictions can limit eligibility.

Every individual’s situation will differ, but in a great many cases, criminal convictions can limit your eligibility for federal student aid. Excluding the small population of inmates who have participated in various Pell Grant pilot programs, those who are currently incarcerated are generally not approved for the receipt of Pell Grants.

That said, every individual interested in pursuing an education should begin by filling out a FAFSA form. This worksheet helps you — and the federal government — determine your eligibility for student aid. If you are eligible for participation in a pilot program, the FAFSA may be your ticket in.

Likewise, you may have the option of filing an appeal for a rejected application. In some cases, there may be ways of demonstrating your qualifications. Try working with administrators at your prison facility, with personnel at your selected college, or with legal counsel and family members or advocates, to navigate the FAFSA process as best you can. But don’t be discouraged if this proves a dead-end.

It is also noteworthy that persons who are convicted for sexual offenses are not eligible for federal student aid, either as inmates or upon release.

For most other ex-offenders, the restrictions upon eligibility become less onerous upon release. The major exception to this eligibility impacts those ex-offenders with drug convictions. If you have been convicted of a drug offense, your eligibility is technically suspended, but may be restored upon successful completion of an approved drug rehabilitation program, or by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by an approved drug rehabilitation program.

Removing limitations on aid eligibility for non-violent offenders — both inmates and ex-offenders — may be one way to help improve access and confront patterns of recidivism. The aforementioned IHEP report recommends policy initiatives aimed at making need-based financial aid more widely available to specific categories of incarcerated persons — a population that excludes violent offenders and those guilty of sex crimes, but which may more liberally include those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

Policy changes in this area could help transform the array of rehabilitative opportunities available to incarcerated individuals.

Scholarships and Grants for inmates

Though access to federal financial aid is limited for those currently serving time in prison, there are several grant-funding groups — both public and private — who work to help prisoners and ex-offenders complete certifications, earn degrees, and start careers. Visit these organizations and scholarship funds to learn more:

Reducing the size of our nation’s enormous prison population means not only reducing recidivism but also supporting those who are most vulnerable to an eventual first offense. It is with this in mind that Rutgers University offers a list of scholarship groups specifically dedicated to the educational needs of children with incarcerated parents. The shared goal of the following grants and scholarships is to ensure that these at-risk students start down the correct path:

The Best Degrees for Inmates

Reentry into society comes with a number of challenges, including employment obstacles and uncertainty about where your skills fit into today’s job market. One of the best strategies for improving your employment opportunities is to earn a degree that gives you flexibility, room for personal growth, and even the chance to start your own business. Some of the best degrees, both for inmates and for ex-offenders, are those that give you the chance to become a self-starter, either as a freelancer, contractor, or entrepreneur:

Your time in prison, as well as your personal journey toward rehabilitation, may also make you uniquely qualified to help others facing their own struggles and journeys. If you’re working toward reentry and seeking a constructive way to apply your experiences, consider a degree in counseling, addiction recovery, or even in the healthcare field.

Whatever career path you take, be aware that there are employers who won’t hire you on the basis of your past conviction. Don’t let this discourage you. Continue to develop and apply your skills, be honest with prospective employers (i.e. never lie about your conviction on a job application), and somebody will give you the chance you need.

[For more job-hunting, resume, and interview tips, consult our Career Counselor.]

Advocacy Programs for Rehabilitation and Reentry

You should also be aware that there are those who wish to help and support you in your journey through reentry, toward a degree, and into gainful employment. Many of these advocacy organizations include individuals who have been down the same path of incarceration and reentry. In addition to providing meaningful perspective and emotional support, some of these groups can provide direct job placement, education guidance, and psychological counseling:

If you’re interested in helping improve access to educational opportunities for inmates as a legal advocate, an attorney, or a lawmaker, consider a degree in legal studies or public administration:

If you’re interested in supporting the fight against recidivism through public advocacy, intervention, or counseling, consider a degree in social work:

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