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The RAND Corporation and RTI International, both nonprofit research organizations, this week released a study that evaluated a five-year college program conducted in North Carolina state prisons. The research found that prison-based education programs, where incarcerated individuals can take college courses and work toward a degree upon release, can be successful but face many obstacles.

The Obama administration three years ago created an experiment to allow prison-based programs from 67 colleges to be eligible for the federal Pell Grant program. (The U.S. Congress banned prisoners from accessing Pell Grants in 1994.) So far, $35.6 million in grant aid has been used by about 8,800 students under the experiment.

Bipartisan support has been building to lift the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners, perhaps through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

RAND last year updated a widely cited study, which found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 13-percentage-point reduction in their risk of returning to prison. The research also found that every $1 spent on prison-based college education can reduce future incarceration costs by $4 to $5.

The study released today found that both participants and prison officials gave the North Carolina program high marks. Among the 201 students who enrolled at six participating prisons, where courses were taught by instructors from local colleges, 150 completed the in-prison portion of the program and transitioned to taking courses at community colleges once released.

However, the research also found that it took incarcerated students longer than their traditional peers to complete course work. In addition, after their release participants were limited to attending one of three community colleges, where support services were concentrated to help them make the transition. While this approach made sense from a resource perspective, the study found, it also prevented some participants from being near supportive family members.

"An overarching lesson is that it takes time to implement a prison and community-based program that has many partners and targets a population that has diverse needs," Lois Davis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND, said in a written statement.