Back to School: A Common-Sense Strategy to Lower Recidivism

Hayne Yoon Former Federal Policy Director
Sep 19, 2019

The United States makes up just 5 percent of the global population but is home to 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. More than 95 percent of the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons will eventually be released, regardless of whether they are ready to secure a job.

Thanks to evidence-based reforms, the country’s justice systems have made marked improvements in reducing recidivism rates in recent years, but more than a third of the people released from prison will find themselves back behind bars within three years. Breaking this cycle of incarceration will require lawmakers to advance program and policy changes that have been left on the table.

Few evidence-based reforms have as much untapped potential as postsecondary education in prison. Incarcerated people who participate in such programs are 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not. The odds of recidivism decrease as incarcerated people achieve higher levels of education. These findings are based on a comprehensive study recently updated by the RAND Corporation, which analyzed rigorous research published from 1980 through 2017.

It’s time for our policymakers to act. Congress can make the largest impact by repealing the restrictions set by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which bars incarcerated people from accessing need-based Pell grants. State policymakers can also do their part by eliminating restrictions on in-state funding sources that many students in prison would otherwise be eligible for.

Removing these barriers will dramatically expand access to quality postsecondary education for people in prison, and in turn will prepare those students to secure jobs and other opportunities and help them avoid recidivating upon release. For example, a report released earlier this year by Vera and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality found that repealing the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison would do the following, based on 50 percent of eligible students participating:

  • Increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent, on average. Combined earnings among all formerly incarcerated people would increase by $45.3 million during the first year of release alone; and
  • Reduce recidivism rates among participating students, saving states a combined $365.8 million in decreased prison costs per year.

Postsecondary education in prison as a strategy to reduce recidivism is not a new idea. Corrections and education professionals have been successfully putting these programs to the test for decades. (It also stands to reason that such programs may provide employers with a larger pool of skilled workers to hire.) Here are a few programs across the country whose outcomes speak to the transformative power of postsecondary education in prison:


  • Project Rebound supports students in the California State University system and helps them to earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees: “In California, more than half of the people released from prison wind up behind bars again. But just 3 percent of Project Rebound students return to prison, according to 2010 figures. Graduation rates for Project Rebound students are high, too; more than 90 percent eventually graduate, while the university’s overall graduation rate is closer to 50 percent.”1

New York:

  • In 2013, the Bard Prison Initiative reported a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent among its alumni.2
  • Over 21 years, Hudson Link has awarded 700 degrees in collaboration with eight colleges and five prisons. The organization reports a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.3


  • Since 2007, Tulsa Community College has awarded approximately 500 associate’s degrees and certificates to incarcerated students. These students have recidivated at a rate of only 5 percent.4


  • Chemeketa Community College has operated a college program in prison since 2007. The recidivism rate among its 256 graduates is just 6 percent. In 2018, 42 students graduated with a cumulative GPA of 3.8.5


  • An eight-year recidivism study found that of 883 people who received college degrees in Texas prisons, 27.2 percent of associate’s degree holders and 7.8 percent of bachelor’s degree holders had recidivated, as compared to 43 percent of people who did not participate in postsecondary education programming.6

The success of these programs present more compelling evidence that expanding access to postsecondary education is a common-sense approach with a strong track record. Repealing the Pell ban and other state-level barriers to postsecondary education without eligibility restrictions will produce the biggest benefits for the greatest number of people possible. It’s time for Congress to act.

  1. Emily DeRuy, “From Convict to College Student,” The Atlantic, August 26, 2016.
  2. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, College Programs: Educating Those Who Are Incarcerated to Reduce Recidivism (Albany, NY: New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 2013).
  3. Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, “Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.”
  4. Jeffrey Horvath, corrections education coordinator, Tulsa Community College, e-mail correspondence with Allan Wachendorfer, program associate, Vera Institute of Justice, August 16, 2019.
  5. Chemeketa Community College, “Corrections Education at Chemeketa.”
  6. SpearIt, “The Return of Pell Grants for Prisoners?” Criminal Justice 31, no. 10 (2016), 10-13.