Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons

Author(s): Gorgol, Laura E. and Sponsler, Brian A.

Organizational Author(s): Institute for Higher Education Policy

Funding Source: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Resource Availability: Publicly available

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Describes services to prepare inmates for work upon release from prison, discusses the potential effectiveness of postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) in preparing inmates for work, and shares survey results from a 2011 study about PSCE availability, uptake, delivery and funding in prisons in 43 states.


“[T]he sizeable incarcerated population [in the United States] consists of people in…need of education to improve their post-release opportunities for employment and participation in civil society” (p.1).  “In one approach to meet the educational needs of incarcerated populations and reduce levels of recidivism, policymakers have turned to postsecondary correctional education (PSCE). PSCE encompasses any academic or vocational coursework an incarcerated person takes beyond the high school diploma or equivalent that can be used toward a certificate or an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree” (p.2). “[PSCE] has been identified as one factor that facilitates successful reentry. Positive post-release outcomes associated with participation in PSCE include increased educational attainment, reduced recidivism rates, and improved employment opportunities and earnings…all factors that support broader policy goals of increasing national educational attainment, broadening the tax base, and reducing public expenditures” (p.16).


“Built on results of a national survey of state correctional education administrators (CEAs), this brief presents…policy-relevant information on the availability, administration, and funding of PSCE in state prison systems....Findings and analysis highlight student enrollments and completions, instructional methods, eligibility requirements, and funding sources of postsecondary education programs in state prison systems” (p.5).


 “The data for this brief were gathered from a 19-item Web-based national survey of…CEAs. Forty-three states responded, for an 86 percent response rate” (p.2). “The survey was divided into five sections: (1) Respondent information; (2) postsecondary education offerings and funding structures; (3) program delivery methods; (4) program participation; and (5) observed outcomes of PSCE programs....As a final step, key findings and policy recommendations were shared and discussed with external reviewers and decision makers whose work touches on PSCE delivery and policy implementation” (p.9).


(Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)

Major Findings & Recommendations

“Key findings include...:

• Participating states reported approximately 71,000 persons enrolled in vocational or academic postsecondary education programs in prisons for academic year 2009–10; 6 percent of the incarcerated population in these states.
• Thirteen high-enrollment states accounted for 86 percent of all incarcerated postsecondary students in the state prison systems included in this study.
• Incarcerated students are not earning two- or four-year postsecondary degrees in significant numbers. Findings illustrate that three out of every four students were enrolled in a vocational or certificate program. Although all types of PSCE are valuable, survey results indicate that most incarcerated students are not on an educational pathway likely to result in academic degree attainment.
• Postsecondary correctional education is delivered primarily through onsite instruction. Survey respondents reported logistical challenges associated with providing education in a prison and recommended technology as one way to improve the delivery of PSCE.
• Security protocols and state statutes were identified as significant barriers to expanding the use of Internet technologies to support the delivery of postsecondary education in prisons.
• A critical challenge facing CEAs is securing funding, a reality that may worsen in coming years because of the financial constraints of state budgets.
• Incarcerated students continue to be denied access to federal and state-based financial aid programs” (p.2-3).

“[R]ecommendations [to]...advance public policy goals of increasing skill and educational acquisition for incarcerated persons and reducing unsustainably high recidivism rates [include]:

1. To address capacity challenges that limit access to postsecondary education in prisons, federal and state statutes and regulations should be revised to support the development and expansion of Internet-based delivery of such education.
2. To increase educational attainment, support economic development, and make efficient use of limited public funding, postsecondary correctional education programs should be closely aligned with state postsecondary education systems and local workforce needs.
3. To support increased access to postsecondary education in prisons, federal and state statutes should be amended to make specific categories of incarcerated persons eligible for need-based financial aid” (p.3).

(Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)

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Workforce System Strategies Content Information

Content Type: Resource
Target Populations: Justice-Involved Individuals

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Views: 99
Publication Date: 2011
Posted: 4/17/2017 5:58 PM
Posted In: Workforce System Strategies
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