The education reform needed in our prisons has to start with providing GED and high school courses. But, finding ways to introduce educational opportunities via prison college courses could also make a monumental difference for our nation’s inmates.
By the numbers: Higher education for prisoners
The vast majority of people entering prison have not obtained a college degree. According to the 2016 National Center for Education Statistics study, there were so few prisoners who had a bachelor’s degree when entering prison that they rounded it to zero.
However, this is not due to a lack of wanting a degree. In the same survey, 40 percent of prisoners reported that they wanted to attend some sort of higher education program, with 22 percent wanting a bachelor’s degree or above.
Access to educational opportunities in prisons
Higher educational opportunities have always had accessibility issues in prison, and one of the biggest problems is affordability.
This became a big problem in 1994 when Congress prohibited inmates from receiving financial aid. Without financial aid, it becomes impossible for almost any prisoners to attend school, as they have no income while in prison and the vast majority of them lived in poverty before entering the system.
However, criminal justice reformists cheered last year when the Obama Administration announced the launch of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which will work with over 100 federal and state institutions to provide thousands of prisoners financial aid in an experimental capacity.
This program is badly needed, and there is still a long way to go for accessibility. A 2011 national survey found that only six percent of the total prison population was enrolled in a postsecondary vocational or academic program.
The benefits of higher education for prisoners
Education can have an enormous impact on the future of prisoners. These programs can advance their literacy skills, which improve their chances of communicating and participating well in society.
Further, education significantly improves former convicts’ chances of obtaining jobs, which is highly necessary for them considering how much their incarceration can hurt their chances at professional opportunities.
These degrees can give them a fair shot at combating poverty. Among those who start at the bottom rung of the income ladder, 45 percent remain there in adulthood if they do not have a college degree compared to only 20 percent who do so if they obtain a degree, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
Moreover, higher education for prisoners isn’t just beneficial for them but a relief to the taxpayers. Participating in educational programs while incarcerated makes prisoners 43 percent less likely to return to prison after release, according to a Rand Corporation Study. And, investing one dollar into educational programs saves up to five dollars in re-entry costs.
Most prisoners start out with low incomes and a severe lack of education. So it is crucial to provide them the necessary opportunities to get a fighting chance at jobs and roles in society.
President Obama’s program to direct Pell Grants to inmates is a huge step for secondary education access in prisons. But with such a small fraction of the total population enrolled in education, it’s going to take some massive reform efforts to get the rest of our nation’s inmates in school, preparing for their release.
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