Postsecondary education can play an important role in the lives of incarcerated adults. We believe research in this field could help more underrepresented people use education as a springboard to a better life by increasing employability, making it easier to reenter the community and reducing recidivism. But the landscape of education in prison presents unique challenges:

  • A lack of research data makes it difficult to know where to start. Higher education programs and their funding vary from state to state and from facility to facility, so data is sparse and inconsistent.
  • Higher education in prison is often underfunded and misunderstood. While support continues to grow, this is still a controversial topic for some policymakers.
  • Debate continues on what and whom to teach. Will credits earned in prison transfer to other postsecondary institutions? Should programs be focused on academic progress or industry-recognized credentials? At what ages do students benefit the most from education in prison? Many questions remain about which programs are most valuable to incarcerated students and the communities they will eventually return to.
  • Incarcerated adults are often unprepared for college-level work. Without a GED or high school diploma, students may not be able to jump right into higher education courses.
  • It takes longer to get a degree. Programs are often specific to one facility, yet many students are moved between facilities over the course of their sentences. This could mean a break in coursework or a transfer to a facility without a program. Also, some facilities limit participation in higher education when other rehabilitation programs take priority.
  • Technology and online learning are not always accessible. Many facilities restrict or prohibit internet use, limiting access to classes and research materials needed for coursework.
  • Students returning to the community after prison may struggle to continue their education. They might be without transportation, under pressure to work full time or facing any number of personal issues.


Due to high incarceration rates and concern over prison's "revolving door," interest in the field of education in prison is growing. The landscape scan we commissioned from the RAND Corporation identifies opportunities for investment on both the national and regional levels. RAND provided recommendations based on the following themes from their research:

  • Expanded Research— Current research is focused more on measuring recidivism than evaluating the impact education has on justice-involved individuals and their communities. Further study is needed to determine which programs are most effective and why.
  • Bridge Programs— Many incarcerated adults face educational deficits, but building "bridge" programs that include high-school equivalency and basic education could give more students a chance to participate in postsecondary programs.
  • Inside to Outside Support— Research suggests programs designed to support students through the transitional period after being released may help them stay on track.
  • Technology Initiatives— Online learning is one of the most cost-effective ways to scale education programs. Funding for needed technology upgrades could help more incarcerated individuals become competitive in the 21st century workforce after release.
  • New Funding Strategies— Education in prison does not always get state or federal funding, so developing new strategies to cover costs could help. RAND's research indicates that industry-funded programs and private donations are possible resources, but long-term strategies will depend on plans for sustainable funding.


Contact Senior Program Officer Toya Wall at