IHEP report looks at impact of higher education on U.S. prison population

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by Jeff Goldman | May 18, 2011



On May 4, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released a report that recommends postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) as a way to reduce recidivism for the approximately 2.3 million people imprisoned in the U.S. every year. According to the report, 70 percent of formerly incarcerated people, left without access to education past the secondary level, are more than likely to return to prison within three years.

The IHEP report, "Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons," [PDF file] examines data from 43 states on postsecondary education programs in their prison systems, regarding student enrollments and completions, instructional methods, eligibility requirements, and funding sources.

"Limited postsecondary educational opportunity in prison may reduce an incarcerated person's likelihood of returning to prison after being released, which should be a concern to all as social conditions are exacerbated by high incarceration levels," IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper, PhD, said in a statement.

Key findings include the following:

  • Approximately 71,000 people (about 6 percent of the prison population) were enrolled in vocational or academic postsecondary education programs for the 2009-10 academic year.
  • 13 "high-enrollment" states (with more than 1,000 incarcerated students enrolled) accounted for 86 percent of all incarcerated postsecondary students in state prison systems included in the study.
  • During the 2009-10 academic year, approximately 9,900 incarcerated people earned a certificate, 2,200 associate's degrees were awarded, and almost 400 students earned bachelor's degrees.
  • Due to the fact that incarcerated students don't have access to federal- and state-based financial aid, about 95 percent of responding states are relying on federal grant programs (most commonly the Workforce and Community Transitions Training for Incarcerated Individuals program).

The report also makes the following three policy recommendations:

  • To address capacity challenges that limit access to postsecondary education in prisons, federal and state statutes and regulations should be revised to support the development and expansion of Internet-based delivery of such education.
  • To increase educational attainment, support economic development, and make efficient use of limited public funding, postsecondary correctional education programs should be closely aligned with state postsecondary education systems and local workforce needs.
  • To support increased access to postsecondary education in prisons, federal and state statutes should be amended to make specific categories of incarcerated persons eligible for need-based financial aid.

The IHEP report is based on results from a national survey sent to state correctional education administrators. Only 43 states responded--states that did not respond included Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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About the Author

Jeff Goldman is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.