College Education in Prisons


While the number of U.S. four-year colleges and universities and community colleges providing education to incarcerated populations, the Vera Institute of Justice reports that only 35-42% of state prisons provide college-level courses to incarcerated people.

Postsecondary prison education programs come in a variety of forms, ranging from non-credit workshops taught by volunteers to full degree-granting programs. In partnership with local prisons or jails, colleges conduct classes inside the facilities. Classes function as they would in a traditional college classroom, but with some added obstacles including time constraints, occasional lockdown disruptions and limitations to technology and supplies. When prison education programs are provided, they typically cover basic literacy, exposure to the arts, GED preparation, vocational training, and college courses. College-in-prison programs take place on-site or through mailed correspondence.

Historically, college-in-prison programs were conducted through correspondence. Recent research has found that on-site, face-to-face classes do a better job of building critical-thinking skills and that the quality of a prison education program is also closely linked to its rigor.

Beginning in 1965, incarcerated individuals in the U.S. were eligible for need-based Pell Grants to pay for college courses while in prison. In the early 1990s, nearly 20% of federal inmates had taken a college course while imprisoned. The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 subsequently banned incarcerated students from receiving federal student aid. This resulted in shutting down many college-in-prison programs as a result.  In December 2020, Congress reauthorized the use of federal Pell Grants by students in prison, and federal aid will again be available to students in prison. For 64% of U.S. inmates, it already is: The Department of Education (ED) has expanded the Second Chance Pell for the 2022-23 award year. The experimental pilot program provides Pell Grants to inmates at certain federal and state prisons to help prove the merit of college-in-prison education.

Criminal convictions continue to limit eligibility for federal financial aid. Drug convictions no longer affect federal student aid eligibility. Still, individuals convicted of sexual offenses are not eligible for Pell Grants, either as inmates or after release.

Every state, in addition to the federal government, has laws that prevent people with criminal records from holding certain jobs. Known as “collateral consequences,” these laws prohibit the formerly incarcerated from some types of work and public services, such as public assistance benefits or public housing. These laws largely restrict those with past convictions from entering healthcare, education, and public service. For this reason, some colleges prevent incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students from studying in fields that would ultimately be closed off to them.  The Department of Education is looking to “ensure that postsecondary institutions do not offer programs to students if State or Federal laws would ban, exempt, or prohibit formerly incarcerated students from licensure or employment.” Otherwise, predatory colleges may enroll incarcerated students to cash in on federal aid — only to award degrees that the formerly incarcerated cannot legally put to use.

Since 2015, 38 states have eased or removed licensing barriers for people with criminal records, according to the Institute for Justice.


  • The Bard Prison Initiative
  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program
  • Georgetown University's Prison Scholars Program
  • New York University's Prison Education Program
  • Wesleyan University's Center for Prison Education
  • In Virginia, incarcerated students at Buckingham Correctional Center, Dillwyn Correctional Center and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women can work toward an associate of science degree in general studies as part of Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Higher Education in Prison program.
  • The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a model established at Temple University in Pennsylvania that has expanded to other colleges across the country, for example, allows campus-based students to take classes inside a correctional facility alongside incarcerated students. Courses are dialogue-based – students engage in discussions related to various disciplines such as criminal justice, history and religious studies.


EAPSE-Factsheet-v5.pdf (

Request an Edit

Have something to add or refine? Your input in this work matters greatly and we look forward to reviewing your additions

Organizations (288)

Initiatives (327)

Topics (95)