A state-by-state look at postsecondary education for incarcerated people

Despite ample evidence that postsecondary education can have a huge, positive impact on currently and formerly incarcerated people and their communities, many states still have significant access barriers. A study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that fewer than one in three states is using available federal and state funding to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people’s postsecondary educational pursuits. More than three-quarters of states actively prevent access via statutory or administrative restrictions.

Mismatch between attainment goals and educational barriers

“Forty-three [states] have publicly stated postsecondary attainment goals, but few are close to meeting them,” the Lumina Foundation, which supported the report, said in a statement. “And all the states have created significant barriers to ensuring that the more than 2 million people currently incarcerated, more than 4 million on probation or parole, and the millions more with criminal backgrounds have access to high-quality postsecondary education.”

Related: Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative is changing the narrative about mass incarceration >

States have much to gain by increasing access to postsecondary education for currently and formerly incarcerated people, so “it was a surprise to us to see how many barriers there are in policy and practice,” report co-author Leah Bacon told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. The report cites an extensive meta-analysis showing that any form of education for incarcerated people generates significant cost savings in reduced recidivism and increased workforce productivity.

Related: California pushing to expand prison-based bachelor’s degree programs >

3 ways to encourage postsecondary education participation

In addition to urging states to take advantage of available funding streams, the report outlines three steps states can take to increase postsecondary access for people who are incarcerated or re-entering their communities. The researchers call on states to provide incentives in correctional facilities—for instance, release from work requirements or access to technology—for incarcerated students. Parole conditions, they say, also should account for postsecondary participation.

Related: Georgetown Pivot Program graduates its first cohort >

Finally, correctional and parole agencies should better partner with community-based services and supports, such as nonprofits, colleges and universities, and trade schools.

Visit the Prisons and Justice Initiative website to learn how Georgetown University brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. PJI also has become a national leader in higher education for incarcerated people, professional training for returning citizens, support for families of the incarcerated, and exonerations after wrongful convictions.

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