The U.S. incarceration rate, which has more than quadrupled to over two million in the past 40 years, according to a report from the National Research Council, represents an immense loss of human capital. While 95% of prisoners will eventually be released, it is estimated that more than half face reconviction. Each conviction raises the likelihood of subsequent convictions, creating a vicious cycle that takes a toll on both government spending and the community. One recognized solution to these issues is investment in well-designed prison education programs, which have been shown to lead to a 43% reduction in recidivism. However, these programs can be difficult to initiate, implement, and sustain. In this blog we explore three significant barriers to successful education program implementation in prisons — and what is being done to overcome them.

3 Barriers to High-Quality Education in Prisons

People in Prison Lack Access to Federal Funding

Over the past 26 years, access to Pell Grants has been limited for incarcerated people. This makes it difficult for incarcerated individuals, many of whom are impoverished, to pay for educational programs. However, in 2022, Congress expanded the Second Chance Pell Grant Experiment, which reported positive results since its inception under the Obama administration in July 2015. The revised program expands eligibility to more than a half million incarcerated individuals. The barrier to funding was lowered even further by the FAFSA Simplification Act, designed to make the FAFSA application free and easier to complete.

Navigating the Prison System is Confusing for Colleges and Universities

Post-secondary institutions currently attempting to implement prison education programs are caught in a shift from the Second Chance Pell Experiment to the expanded “Pell For All” program, available in 48 states in 2023. Educational program administrators lack dashboards to interface with prison oversight entities, directives to share with their accrediting bodies, application forms to apply for federal reviews, and roadmaps indicating a sequence to follow. Though the legislation has delivered the rules for how the Pell program should operate, the implementation toolkit remains incomplete and confusing for colleges and universities that were not already participating in the Second Chance Pell Experiment. Supporting newly approved programs through implementation and reporting will take time and effort from all stakeholders, but the resulting process could be easier to navigate, multiplying the positive impacts of the legislation.  

Students Need Adequate Time, Access To Technology, And Remedial Support To Succeed

Programs piloted in prisons are not only stymied by regulation at the federal, state, and local levels, but can also face roadblocks at each prison, where officials have the final say over access. Injustice Watch reports that “Lockdowns and transfers have also disrupted college classes for students in prisons,” which degrade outcomes for providers and may hurt the rapport between learners and prison officials. An article from the Bard Prison Initiative points out, “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last winter and colleges scrambled to move online, prison-education programs were at a disadvantage, since inmates typically aren’t allowed on the internet and have limited access to technology.”

Finding the extra time and remedial support needed for students to succeed is vital. Prison Policy Initiative finds that more than half of formerly incarcerated people hold only a high school diploma or GED and are nearly twice as likely to have no high school credential at all. Access to the internet has expanded since a RAND study revealed that, “In 2014, thirty states reported that only teachers and instructors have access to live Internet technology in classrooms. In 26 states, inmate students lack access to any internet technology, and in only 16 states do inmate students have access to simulated Internet programs.” In some cases, hardware is restricted as well. For example, some prisons only allow more costly computers that are specifically built for prisons, which strain budgets and limit access. It is not uncommon for incarcerated people to pay 30 cents for an email or $10 for 30 minutes of video on proprietary machines, according to Mother Jones. These barriers are being overcome with the introduction of newer technological solutions that help democratize access on existing devices and expand access to an even greater set of virtual resources.

At WGU Labs, the connection between recidivism and education is strongly aligned with our “Wicked Problems.”

The Wicked Problems are a framework through which we align our work by identifying the biggest challenges in higher education — and how to solve them. We believe that existing routes and entry points to postsecondary education unnecessarily limit access for individuals who do not match the historic student profile. We also believe that a lack of transparency around post-secondary education costs and financial support impedes access and opportunity, especially for historically underserved student populations.

In order to gain insights into how these issues can be solved, we have begun working with Nucleos to explore the potential for WGU to deliver bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated learners by utilizing the Nucleos Learning Platform. The Nucleos Learning Platform provides secure access to the programs and media needed to deliver college courses online with the unique needs of correctional facilities in mind.

According to Nucleos CEO & Co-Founder, Noah Freedman, "Nucleos is providing access to high-quality education that can have a transformational impact on the lives of those involved in the justice system. By helping people complete college degrees, we are opening up opportunities for successful reentry and reducing recidivism." Though intangible outcomes such as positive self-worth and development, racial equity, and increased safety both inside and outside of prisons are often difficult to measure, their impact can be felt in the stories of returning citizens and the costs of reoffense. “Providing access to high-quality education, Nucleos is helping to break the cycle of incarceration and giving people the opportunity to lead productive, fulfilling lives,” adds Freedman.

Ultimately, college in prison is considered inexpensive compared to almost any other meaningful intervention in U.S. systems of incarceration.

A 2018 study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the Department of Justice, estimated, “For every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.” According to the Vera Institute of Justice, postsecondary education for people in prison could cut state prison spending across the country by as much as $365.8 million annually.

Despite the challenges of implementation, the value of these programs is clear. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 47% of those convicted find themselves reconvicted and 52% return to prison. Educational interventions drastically counteract that trend. The Northwestern Prison Education Program reports a “43% reduction in recidivism rates for those prisoners who participate in prison education programs. The higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate: 14% for those who obtain an associate degree, 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 0% for those who obtain a master’s degree.”

These findings illustrate the transformational impact education could have in the lives of incarcerated individuals. Though significant barriers exist for learners and the post-secondary institutions attempting to build new prison education programs, it is possible that with the alignment of federal funding, participation by departments of correction, and companies like Nucleos working to increase educational access, post-secondary institutions can build the capacity to achieve transformational change.