Lack of state and federal support, restrictions on financial aid, and legal barriers that limit Internet access in prisons all hinder inmates’ access to higher education, according to a report released today by the Institute for Higher Education Policy .
Removing these barriers, the report argues, could help reduce prison populations over time and save states money by helping inmates find jobs upon release, and by reducing recidivism rates.
But because state governments and the federal government are facing cuts, and because diverting financial resources to benefit inmates is not a politically palatable option, the chance that such reforms will be enacted seems slim. Texas lawmakers recently called for higher education programs in prisons to be cut after it was discovered that few inmates had repaid the state  for educational services.
“The political environment is always going to be complex around these issues, and that’s certainly going to be the case in the current environment,” said Brian A. Sponsler, a research analyst for the institute and a co-author of the report, with Laura Gorgol, a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. “By elevating the issue now, we hope it can be part of the discussion.”
The authors of the report, entitled "Unlocking Potential," surveyed the chief correctional education officers in all 50 states, though officials from Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia did not respond to the survey.
The authors found that about 6 percent of inmates in the 43 states whose officials did reply were enrolled in some form of postsecondary education for the 2009-10 school year, though the figure varied considerably by state. At the high end was North Carolina, where more than 16,500 inmates were enrolled in higher education. In South Dakota, however, fewer than 50 were enrolled. While the report didn't break down enrollments based on each state's inmate population, the percentage of enrolled inmates appeared to vary from state to state. Some populous states with high prison populations, such as Florida, enrolled fewer than 1,000 students in higher education programs, while some small states, such as Vermont, enrolled more than 1,000.
About 2.3 million people are currently in prison in the United States.
The study found that most inmates enrolled in postsecondary programs focused on vocational training rather than college degrees. The authors attribute this tendency to short-term prisoners taking courses without the time to complete a degree. The report recommends making sure that credits obtained in prison are easily transferable to other institutions so as to encourage more students to pursue degrees.
The report cited the legal restrictions on Internet access in state prisons as a major barrier to improving educational opportunities for individuals in prisons. Many states prohibit or restrict Internet use by inmates for security reasons, and, as a result, few prisoners take online courses. Allowing inmates to take online courses, the report argues, could help cut down on costs, allow inmates to move through courses at their own speed, and increase the number of educational options.
“We believe the technology exists to provide online educational opportunities in an environment that doesn’t sacrifice security,” Sponsler said.
Funding was also cited as a barrier to providing these programs. Inmates used to pay for college courses through Pell Grants, but they were cut off from the program in 1994. Courses are now funded through a diverse stream of federal and state support, private or family money, and philanthropies.
The report found that almost all programs are funded at least in part through the Workforce and Community Transitions Training for Incarcerated Individuals Program, a block grant provided by the federal government for various types of work training. That grant comes with certain restrictions, however, including that prisoners be under the age of 35 and not have committed certain violent crimes. States with a high number of inmates taking courses were more than twice as likely as other states to provide support for the programs, too. The report did not break down how much each funding stream contributed to each program or differences in cost among them.
While the institute did not address some major questions, such as the outcomes of these programs, what sorts of institutions are providing the educational services, and what different states or colleges are doing to ensure success, it plans to do so in future reports. It also hopes to explore the demand for these programs and how many inmates have the educational background necessary to begin postsecondary education.