Higher Education Policy

Removing Barriers to Higher Education for the Justice-Involved

“Education is necessary to prevent the marginalization of the millions of individuals who have spent time in prison and now have returned to society.” ~ President Jeremy Travis, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

PRI has supported investment in and access to both prison- and community-based higher education as the path to reentry with perhaps the most promise of success. As President Travis noted in his 2011 keynote address on the topic of education and reentry, “College education has the power to transform lives, unlock human potential, provide a ladder to the middle class, foster notions of citizenship, and promote individual responsibility.”

The Value of Education in Reentry. While some policymakers have focused on the need for those returning to their communities to find employment, PRI has spearheaded research, publications, and policy advocacy to improve access to higher education for the current and formerly incarcerated. Why? Studies have shown that investment in higher education is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism and improve the lives of those reentering their communities:

  • Participation in educational programs is associated with reductions in recidivism ranging from 7% to 46%
  • An $1,182 investment in vocational training can save $6,806 in future criminal justice costs
  • An $962 investment in academic education can save $5,306 in future criminal justice costs

Yet access to post-secondary education in prisons in America was devastated when, in 1994, Congress withdrew federal support under the Pell grant program for students incarcerated in state and federal prisons. The result? In the year following the ban, the number of individuals receiving post-secondary education in prisons dropped by 44 percent. Between 1994 and 2008, the number of post-secondary prison education programs in New York dropped from 70 to just eight. And yet, in a 2009 survey asking individuals who were about to leave prison to rank their needs, the highest number – 94% – said that they wanted an education, more than those who cited a desire for financial assistance, a driver’s license, job training, or employment.

PRI’s Advocacy and Impact. Through our pioneering work to promote the role of higher education in reentry, PRI has earned a reputation as a true leader in the field, engaging in frequent advocacy to remove barriers to higher education for people with criminal records.

  • For several years PRI has served on the Coordinating Committee of the New York Reentry Education Network, a consortium for providers of higher education in prisons.
  • We have been designated by the Chancellor to be the lead agency in CUNY’s application to be an Experimental Site in the Second Chance Act Pell Pilot Program, an Obama administration initiative that temporarily waives the Pell grant ban in order to test whether participation in high quality educational opportunities increases after incarcerated individuals are provided with access to financial aid.
  • We support research and publications like Higher Education and Reentry: The Gifts They Bring, a 2013 study documenting the individual experiences of men and women who come home from prison and decide to change their lives through higher education, and From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Reentry, a report on the 2008 John Jay/Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable on Education, which examined the state of education during incarceration and reentry and identified promising programmatic and policy directions.