Report: Few Prisoners Enroll in College Classes, Despite Research Indicating Its Effectiveness in Reducing Recidivism


Despite mounting evidence that correctional education — and postsecondary education in particular — can be a cost-effective approach to reducing recidivism, fewer than 5 percent of prisoners nationwide are currently enrolled in college classes, according to a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Recidivism — the re-arrest, reconviction, or return to prison of former prisoners — has contributed to a rapidly growing prison population in the U.S. that costs American taxpayers nearly $30 billion annually.

To better understand the status, funding and implementation of postsecondary correctional education programs in the U.S., the Institute conducted a national survey that yielded input from correctional education administrators in 45 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Results of the survey, along with additional data and analysis are detailed in the new report, “Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy.” 

In 2003-04, some 85,000 prisoners — fewer than 5 percent of the total prison population — were taking college courses, according to the report, representing just a small fraction of those who are prepared academically, eligible and could benefit from access to higher education. 

Interestingly, the vast majority of incarcerated students taking part in higher education — 89 percent — were enrolled in programs in 15 prison systems that awarded 96 percent of all degrees and certificates granted to prisoners nationwide. But contrary to popular perceptions, prison inmates have not been receiving free college degrees, even at the associate level, in any significant numbers. Of those prisoners who earned a credential in 2003-04, 92 percent were enrolled in vocational certificate programs for college credit, while overall degree completion rates were low. 

“Prisoners are serving longer sentences than in the past but are frequently released without the education or skills necessary to find productive employment,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute. “Offering postsecondary education to inmates seems less ‘soft on crime’ and more a cost-effective means to reduce recidivism and gain control of the mounting tax burden.”

The report and survey reveal a number of barriers to greater enrollment of those eligible in postsecondary correctional education. Survey respondents identified limited funding, restrictive eligibility criteria, conflicting administrative priorities, poor academic preparation and logistical problems such as security concerns and frequent reassignments that interrupt coursework as some of the greatest obstacles. Most of all, survey respondents indicated that lack of support from policymakers and the public magnifies these barriers and makes providing consistent programming more challenging.

To address these challenges, the report calls for a national effort to build public support for postsecondary correctional education as an important means to reduce recidivism, and includes a series of recommendations and specific funding policy changes, such as reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners; expand the Incarcerated Youth Offender (IYO) Grant program; allocate additional state funds to the public colleges and universities that provide instruction for postsecondary correctional education programs; allow prisoners to receive state grants for low-income students; and diversify prison system funding to include public and private sources.

The report is available online at

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