The Landscape of Higher Education in Prison


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Caisa E. Royer, Erin L. Castro, Edén Cortes-López, Mary R. Gould, Amy E. Lerman

Suggested Citation:

Royer, C.E., Castro, E.L., Cortes-López, E., Gould, M.R., & Lerman, A.E. (2020). The landscape of higher education in prison 2018-2019. Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

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In this brief report, we provide a descriptive overview of the landscape of higher education in prison during the 2018-2019 academic year. Data for this report are drawn from two sources: responses to the 2020 Annual Survey of Higher Education in Prison Programs (n = 131) and data compiled by the Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison for known programs that did not complete the Annual Survey (n = 169). (Additional information on these datasets is provided in Appendix A.)

How Many Higher Education in Prison Programs Are Identified in Our Data?

We identified and were able to include 300 higher education in prison programs in our data for the 2018-2019 academic year. For our purposes, a higher education in prison program is defined as an organization that meets the following criteria:

  1. provides postsecondary education;
  2. is formally affiliated with a college and/or university; and
  3. uses a secondary credential (e.g., a High School degree or GED) as a requirement for admission.

How Long Have Programs Been Operating?

Although there is a great deal of variation in how long programs have been in existence, the past decade has seen a significant growth in the founding of higher education in prison programs. This growth may have been encouraged by the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which supported the creation of 22 new programs in 2016.

A line graph showing the years programs were founded

What Types of Colleges and Universities Support Higher Education in Prison?

The academic institutions with which programs are affiliated varied, but consistent with previous years, the majority of institutions that provided higher education in prison are public, two-year schools.

A bar chart showing types of academic instututions

For the subset of prison higher education programs that completed the 2020 Annual Survey (43.7% of programs in our population), we are able to report additional information on affiliated academic institutions:

Affiliated Academic Institutions

Among respondents to the survey, two-thirds of higher education in prison programs were affiliated with a single academic institution (67.7%). Three programs reported that they worked with more than nine colleges or universities. Some programs are partnerships between multiple colleges or universities, while other academic institutions work with a third-party facilitator to provide programming. Twelve survey respondents reported that their programs were not affiliated with any institutions of higher education.

A bar chart showing number of affiliated academic institutions per program

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