Giving Compass' Take:

• Ithaka S+R shares this review of the state of postsecondary education in prisons and recommendations to strengthen access to educational opportunities for prisoners. 

• Are there prison education programs in your area that would benefit from donor support? 

• Learn about California's prison education success

Postsecondary education in US prisons is a growing topic in both academic and political circles. While much of the discourse surrounding higher education more broadly focuses on students’ educational and employment outcomes, the conversation around postsecondary education in prisons often centers on the societal benefits of this programming, with a strong focus on reduced recidivism rates – the rates with which formerly incarcerated individuals engage in criminal acts that result in their re-arrest, re-conviction, or re-incarceration. With 1.5 million people incarcerated across state and federal prisons, at an average annual cost of $31,000 per person, reducing recidivism is an important metric. However, as is discussed in more detail in this paper, the field of higher education in prison deserves a stronger student-centered approach to research, policy, and practice that promotes a broader range of positive outcomes for incarcerated adults and their families, and ultimately the field of education and society at large.

People in prison have disproportionately low levels of education, both upon entering and during their incarceration. In 2012 and 2014, only six percent of the incarcerated population held a postsecondary degree, compared with 37 percent of non-incarcerated persons. Despite alarming increases in the number of adults held in US prisons over the last two decades, the very small shares of students who enroll in postsecondary education programs while in prison have decreased. In fact, only nine percent of people in prison attain any postsecondary educational credential while incarcerated, mostly in the form of certificates. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education. Yet 95 percent of all people in state facilities will eventually be released and need access to employment. Given their low rates of postsecondary education, how will incarcerated adults gain the skills and tools they need for life outside? There are multiple barriers to postsecondary access and success for this underserved population, resting mainly in limited federal and public support for improving and expanding programs.