Most people in prison can’t access life-changing postsecondary education

Postsecondary education can improve the lives of people in prison and help them thrive once released. But ever since the 1994 Crime Bill banned Pell Grants—federal need-based financial aid—for incarcerated students, there has been little educational programming available to people in prison beyond the high school level. That changed in December 2020, when, after lobbying and advocacy by formerly incarcerated leaders, Vera, and a coalition of allies, Congress lifted this ban. Now, after years of organizing, we’re working to implement this new policy to ensure that everyone in prison has the opportunity to receive a life-changing education.

[P]ostsecondary opportunities for incarcerated people open doors, but, more importantly, they expand hearts and minds.

Brandon Brown, George Mason University graduate

Benefits of college in prison

The opportunity to receive a postsecondary education while incarcerated benefits individuals, their families, and their communities.

  • Employment opportunities. For the 95 percent of people in prison who will eventually rejoin their communities, having a meaningful job is vital to remaining free and thriving. The majority of all jobs require education and training beyond high school.
  • Lower recidivism. Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs have 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not. Not only does this mean safer communities and lower prison populations, it also saves taxpayer money. Every dollar invested in prison-based education saves four to five dollars in incarceration costs.
  • Racial equity. College is a primary avenue for upward mobility—especially among people of color, who make up a disproportionate number of the prison population. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites, and Latinx people are 1.3 times as likely to be incarcerated than non-Latinx whites.
New challenges for college in prison

People in prison will have an easier time affording college beginning in 2023 with the reinstatement of Pell Grants for those behind bars. More work remains to ensure the college programs are high quality and are comparable to the quality of the education offered on campus. College programs in prison must also support student success from enrollment through completion, which requires attention to the range of programs being offered, available technology that complements and does not replace in-person instruction, and student support services.

Participants in college-in-prison programs have 48% lower odds of returning to prison.
70% of all jobs in 2027 will require higher education and training beyond high school.
Taxpayers could save $365.8M per year by increasing educational opportunities in prison.
The next step: ensuring equal access to education

Launched in 2012, Vera’s Unlocking Potential Initiative (which grew out of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education demonstration project) has helped expand access to postsecondary education in prison by piloting solutions; partnering with the federal government, state corrections, and colleges; and successfully advocating for the repeal of a more-than-two-decade ban on Pell Grants for students in prison. With this victory in hand, it is time for the next step: ensuring that everyone who wants an education while incarcerated has access to one.

By leveraging expertise gathered through years of close work with colleges, departments of corrections, and the U.S. Department of Education, Vera’s Unlocking Potential Initiative is helping to ensure the quality of education in prisons across the country.

Our research

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