Nav: Home

Prison-based college presents challenges, but can succeed, study finds

May 22, 2019

Creating a prison-based program where incarcerated individuals can take college classes and then work toward a degree upon release can be successful, but many obstacles challenge the success of such efforts, according to a new study.

In evaluating a five-year effort in North Carolina, researchers found it took incarcerated individuals longer than traditional students to complete coursework, according to the study by researchers from the RAND Corporation and RTI International.

"The program we evaluated was given high marks by both the participants and the prison officials who were involved," said Lois Davis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "But 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."

Interest in prison-based education has grown in recent years as an approach to reduce recidivism and improve the future of people who are incarcerated for crimes.

In 2018, RAND updated and expanded its earlier evaluation of the effectiveness of correctional education programs and found that the original findings still hold. According to RAND's research, inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 13-percentage-point reduction in their risk of returning to prison and every $1 invested in prison education can reduce future incarceration costs by $4 to $5 in the near term.

The new study evaluates the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education program established in North Carolina state prisons in 2013 as part of a multi-state demonstration project supported by several foundations.

To help incarcerated individuals obtain a postsecondary education degree or credential, prisons offered them college classes during the final two years of their incarceration, with support continuing for another two years following release to help them achieve their degree or certificate goal.

Researchers from RAND and RTI evaluated the program's adoption and success rate, interviewing more than 70 stakeholders, program staff and participants to gather input.

Overall the program enrolled 201 students at the six participating prisons, where classes were taught by instructors from local community colleges. The in-prison portion of the program was completed by 150 people, who transitioned to classes at community colleges once released from incarceration.

Participants had to agree to be released from prison into one of three communities in North Carolina where support services were concentrated to help them transition into community colleges. While this approach made sense from a resource perspective, it was not ideal for all participants because it kept them from being near supportive family members, according to researchers.

Among the recommendations made by the report is allowing participants more time to build their general education credits prior to their release from prison and allowing people to initially attend college part-time once they are released, which would allow them to better acclimate to their new lives.

Researchers also recommend that programs have a geographically diverse group of release communities so participants can live near their family members and other supports, and that community colleges and other community-based educational providers are a part of the planning process.

"The North Carolina Pathways Program offers valuable insights into the success and challenge of implementing a prison-based postsecondary education program intended to help participants continue their education upon release," said Michelle C. Tolbert, the study's co-author and a researcher at RTI, a nonprofit research institute in North Carolina. "These lessons can help guide other states that want to undertake such efforts."
Support for the project was provided by the Laughing Gull Foundation and the Vera Institute of Justice. The study, "Evaluation of the North Carolina's Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Program," is available at

The project was conducted within the RAND Justice Policy Program, which conducts research across the criminal and civil justice system on issues such as public safety, effective policing, drug policy and enforcement, corrections policy, court reform, and insurance regulation.

RAND Corporation

Related Education Articles:

Education a top priority
Various studies have revealed that a majority of Western European populations support increased investment in education.
Dementia on the downslide, especially among people with more education
In a hopeful sign for the health of the nation's brains, the percentage of American seniors with dementia is dropping, a new study finds.
A vision for revamping neuroscience education
The expanding scope and growing number of tools used for neuroscience is moving beyond what is taught in traditional graduate programs, say leaders in American neuroscience education, funding, and policy.
Scientific education through films?
Magic swords, wands, cauldrons and cloaks of invisibility do not exist in reality.
What should be the role of computer games in education?
Game advocates are calling for a sweeping transformation of conventional education to replace traditional curricula with game-based instruction.
More Education News and Education Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#534 Bacteria are Coming for Your OJ
What makes breakfast, breakfast? Well, according to every movie and TV show we've ever seen, a big glass of orange juice is basically required. But our morning grapefruit might be in danger. Why? Citrus greening, a bacteria carried by a bug, has infected 90% of the citrus groves in Florida. It's coming for your OJ. We'll talk with University of Maryland plant virologist Anne Simon about ways to stop the citrus killer, and with science writer and journalist Maryn McKenna about why throwing antibiotics at the problem is probably not the solution. Related links: A Review of the Citrus Greening...