Key takeaways

  • An overwhelming number of incarcerated adults in state and federal prisons are interested in higher education.
  • The number of prison education programs is growing, but the offerings are still limited throughout state and federal prisons.
  • Receiving higher education has been shown to reduce recidivism among inmates.
  • Many higher education programs are offered at no cost and are funded by the state in which the facility is located or by colleges and universities.

Prison education programs have been on the rise over the last few years. There are currently 396 higher education prison programs — a 9 percent increase from the 2019-20 academic year — according to a report by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. Not only that, but a survey by New America revealed that nearly 70 percent of incarcerated adults from both state and federal prisons are interested in obtaining a certificate or a college degree.

Despite the interest, incarcerated adults often face a unique set of hurdles when it comes to accessing a college education.

Challenges of going to college while incarcerated

Funding issues, transfers, few seats and a lack of program options all contribute to the barriers people face when looking to attend college.

Degree programs are often limited

Although the number of prison education programs has increased since the implementation of the Second Chance Pell in 2015, the academic offerings for incarcerated adults are still lacking.

There are currently 396 higher education prison programs across the country, the vast majority of which only offer post-secondary certificates or associate’s degrees. Only 38  of them offer bachelor’s degrees and eight offer master’s, according to a report by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

Incarcerated students also have limited options when it comes to their fields of study.

“So, if the one college that offers a program in your facility is offering an associate’s degree in business — that’s all you’re going to get,” says Bradley Custer, a higher education scholar and policy analyst with the U.S. Department of Education. “There are some facilities where colleges have multiple programs and have a range of course offerings. There are even facilities where there are multiple colleges offering different types of programs and also different modalities of programs, but not all of them offer this.”

Not everyone can enroll

Another barrier incarcerated students face when it comes to getting a college degree is that, since programs are scarce, not everyone who wants to enroll can do so.

“By and large, there’s more demand for college programs than there are seats available,” Custer says.

Facilities usually are the ones who decide who can enroll in these programs, favoring those who are closer to their release date and who don’t have any recent history of disciplinary actions.

“The colleges also have their own admissions requirements,” Custer says. “A student may have to show progressive proficiency in things like English or math or writing before they can become eligible for a particular program, just like students outside of prison usually have to take some kind of entry tests to enter college.”

Some classes are only available through distance learning

Most prison education programs are offered in person at designated classrooms inside the facilities. Some, like those offered through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, even give incarcerated students the opportunity to take courses and interact with non-incarcerated students for a more well-rounded experience.

However, there are some courses that are only offered through distance learning. This can pose a greater challenge, as they require more discipline and motivation to succeed — you’re basically learning on your own.

It can be hard to make progress

An analysis by New America found that while almost a quarter of incarcerated individuals enroll in a college program, less than 10 percent of them complete their certificates or degrees while in prison.

Although the analysis doesn’t delve into what may cause this, events like transfers and 24-hour lockdowns can get in the way of a student’s progress.

“Transfer is a major barrier for incarcerated students,” Custer says. “There is no guarantee that there will be a college program at the new facility. It’s also a concern when federal financial aid is used because depending on when the transfer happens, a Pell Grant could have to be refunded.”

Besides that, some programs only allow students to take one or two classes at a time, which means it takes them much longer to complete their degrees compared to non-incarcerated students.


Many college programs are offered to incarcerated students at no cost, as the majority of them are funded by the state and the colleges themselves through endowments. That said, there are some courses that may require students or their families to cover the costs.

Since incarcerated students earn extremely low wages, paying for a college education can be challenging, as most are currently not eligible to receive federal financial aid.

How upcoming changes to the FAFSA could affect prison college programs

It is estimated that there were over 770 programs across 1,287 correctional institutions in the early 90s across the country. However, that number substantially dropped after 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned incarcerated students from receiving Pell Grants.

“Once there was no money for a student to use to pay for those programs, many colleges didn’t have a way to pay for them,” Custer says. “But what we learned from that was that there has to be a stable public source of funding if we really want to have a lot of incarcerated people accessing college programs.”

In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell program, which provided need-based Pell Grants to incarcerated students at select state and federal prisons. Eight years later, the program has been a success, enrolling more than 40,000 incarcerated students, of whom over 12,000 have earned credentials.

But change hasn’t stopped there. On Dec. 27, 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act. Among its provisions, this new law reinstated Pell Grant access to all incarcerated students as of July 1, 2023.

“One opportunity for when Pell Grants become more widely available is the possibility that incarcerated students will have more choices,” Custer says. “In other words, we will have more colleges that want to teach in facilities, so a student might be able to pick between more programs in a facility.”

Why access to college programs in prison matters

It is estimated that by 2027, 70 percent of jobs will require some sort of postsecondary degree or training beyond high school. But only 6 percent of incarcerated individuals meet these requirements, compared to 37 percent of non-incarcerated individuals, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Not only that, but incarcerated individuals earn about 41 percent less than other individuals of the same age — even prior to being incarcerated.

Providing broader access to college education programs in prison can help promote the advancement of incarcerated individuals and narrow existing wealth gaps. Additionally, it gives them access to better rehabilitation to help them reenter society.

In fact, it has been proven that incarcerated students who participate in a postsecondary education program are 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t and are 12 percent more likely to be employed post-release.

“For a person who is returning home after being incarcerated, having a job is really important for stabilizing their life,” Custer says. “When you talk to students and graduates from prison college programs, they often describe education as transformative — it changes their life, it changes their outlook, it motivates them.”