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Investing in Futures:
Economic and Fiscal Benefits of
Postsecondary Education in Prison
January 2019

Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield, Casey Goldvale, and
Laura Tatum, Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality
Margaret diZerega and Fred Patrick, Vera Institute of Justice

Copyright Creative Commons (cc) 2019 by Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield,
Casey Goldvale, Laura Tatum, Margaret diZerega, and Fred Patrick. Notice
of rights: This report has been published under a Creative Commons
license. This work may be copied, redistributed, or displayed by anyone,
provided that proper attribution is given and that the adaptation also carries
a Creative Commons license. Commercial use of this work is disallowed.

Directors’ Note
In the United States’ four-decade long experiment
with mass incarceration, people of color and people
in poverty have borne the highest burden. Indeed,
mass incarceration, race, and poverty have always
been intimately linked: people behind bars typically
live in poverty even before they enter a jail or
prison. Research shows that people’s earnings at the
time of incarceration are on average 41 percent less
than the income of people of similar ages who are
not incarcerated.
Moreover, serving time only compounds a person’s
struggle against poverty. The hardships of cash
bail and fines and fees—coupled with countless
barriers to reentry, such as employment and housing
restrictions—perpetuate an endless cycle that robs
people of their dignity and upends entire families and
communities.
Some barriers to reentry are imposed on individuals
even before they are released. The federal ban on Pell
Grants for people in prison is one of those barriers. For
two decades, Pell Grants, which help students from
low-income families gain access to postsecondary
education, served as the primary funding source for

college programs in prisons. Following the passage of
the Pell Grant ban for otherwise eligible incarcerated
people, as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, states, colleges,
and prisons dramatically scaled back postsecondary
programs in prison—thus blocking hundreds of
thousands each year from the education they needed
to succeed in the modern economy.
This relic of the “tough-on-crime” era has resulted
in long-term negative consequences for all of us,
including high recidivism rates and intergenerational
incarceration, as well as lost economic potential for
individuals, families, and communities. In recent
years, some states have recognized the need to reverse
many overly punitive criminal justice policies and
have worked to implement evidence-based legislative
reforms. But with 1.5 million people currently in
prison—90 percent of whom will eventually be
released—there is still much progress to be made.
Expanding access to postsecondary education in
prison, through state and federal action, is a step we
can take that can truly disrupt mass incarceration
and break the cycle of poverty that comes with it.
As leaders of organizations committed to ensuring

equal justice for all, we believe that lifting the Pell
ban for people in prison is the most effective route to
achieving these goals.
This new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and
the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality
presents compelling new evidence to show that
restoring Pell Grants for incarcerated people would
benefit not only those individuals and their families
but also local businesses and communities. The report
builds on available evidence that expanding access
to postsecondary education in prison reduces
recidivism rates, helps to improve public safety, and
cuts prison costs.

Nicholas Turner
President, Vera Institute of Justice

What no report or data can truly capture, however, is
the power of postsecondary education in prison to
empower people and provide them with a newfound
sense of hope and confidence, which can positively
affect the communities in which they live, including
those within prison and those outside of prison, to
which many will return.
It’s time we repeal the ban and create a more
restorative justice system that increases safety and
produces better and more cost-effective outcomes
for everyone.

Peter Edelman
Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and
Public Policy at Georgetown University
Law Center and Faculty Director of the
Georgetown Center on Poverty and
Inequality

Contents
1	

Executive summary

4	

Introduction

8 	 Participation in education programs in prison and the 		
	
Pell-eligible population
	
	
8 	 Demographic profile of people participating in 			
		
education programs in prison
	

13 	

The potentially Pell-eligible state prison population	

17 	 Established effects of postsecondary education in prison
	
	
17 	 Postsecondary education in prison programs and the 		
		
labor market	
	
19	 Postsecondary education in prison programs and 		
		recidivism
21	
	

Restoring Pell Grant access would improve odds of 		
employment among formerly incarcerated people

	
23 	 Estimating the employment and earnings impact of 		
		
lifting the ban on Pell Grants	
	
31	
		

Restoring Pell Grant access to incarcerated people 		
would benefit states

	
33	
		

Estimating the impact of lifting the ban on Pell Grants 		
on states

37	

Conclusion and recommendation

39 	 Appendix A
46 	 Appendix B
52	Endnotes

Executive summary

E

fforts to build robust postsecondary education programs in prison
have accelerated in recent years, with support from a broad range
of groups from correctional officers to college administrators. This
report describes how lifting the current ban on awarding Pell Grants
to incarcerated people would benefit workers, employers, and states.
Specifically, it analyzes the potential employment and earnings impact
of postsecondary education programs in prison; identifies the millions
of job openings annually that require the skills a person in prison could
acquire through postsecondary education; and estimates the money states
would save through lower recidivism rates these postsecondary education
programs would yield.
The research described in this report generated the following findings
and projections:
1.	 Most people in prison are eligible for, but are not provided with the
resources for, a postsecondary education.
›› The majority of people in prison are academically eligible for
postsecondary education. Among incarcerated people in federal
and state prisons, 64 percent are academically eligible to enroll in
a postsecondary education program, meaning that at the time of
incarceration their highest level of educational attainment was a
GED or high school diploma.
›› Most people in prison are not receiving postsecondary
education. The majority of people (58 percent) who are incarcerated
do not complete an education program while in prison.1 Among
those who do earn a new educational credential, the majority
completed a high school or GED program. According to the latest
data, from 2014, only 9 percent of incarcerated people completed a
postsecondary program while in prison. Access to postsecondary
education in prison is limited; most existing programs are funded
through the federal Second Chance Pell program, described in detail
below, which serves a maximum of 12,000 incarcerated students

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

1

annually.2 Comparatively, this report estimates that if the ban
were lifted, about 463,000 incarcerated people would be eligible for
Pell Grants.

For a quarter-century, people in prison
have lacked a reliable or consistent
funding source for postsecondary
education. This absence of funding
has translated into fewer educational
opportunities for incarcerated people,
contributing to the challenges they
face on reentry.

2.	 Postsecondary education in prison increases employment and
earnings for formerly incarcerated people.
›› Restoring access to Pell Grants for postsecondary education
in prison would increase employment rates among formerly
incarcerated people across the United States.3 The authors estimate
that state employment rates among people who return home after
participating in a postsecondary education program in prison will,
on average, increase by nearly 10 percent. (See Figure 10 on page
29 for state-by-state estimates.) Based on the authors’ midpoint
estimate (if 50 percent of the eligible prison population participated
in a postsecondary education program), employment rates among
all formerly incarcerated workers would rise by roughly 2.1 percent
during their first year after release.
›› An increase in employment rates translates into an increase in
earnings for formerly incarcerated people and their families.
The authors expect that combined wages earned by all formerly

2

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

incarcerated people would increase by about $45.3 million during
the first year back in their communities (unless otherwise noted, all
figures are in 2015 dollars).4
3.	 Postsecondary education in prison provides workers with skills
that employers seek.
›› Jobs that require applicants to have a minimum education level
ranging from above a high school degree to a bachelor’s degree
make up a sizeable share of the overall economy. Projections by the
Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that over the next decade there
will be, on average, nearly five million job openings annually for
which the typical entry-level education requirement will range from
some college to a bachelor’s degree.5 The availability of Pell Grants
for incarcerated people would allow them to receive the necessary
education and training to be eligible to fill these jobs.
4.	 Greater access to postsecondary education in prison is expected to
reduce state prison spending.
›› Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison is likely to
reduce recidivism rates, lowering state reincarceration spending. The
authors’ midpoint estimate indicates that incarceration costs across
states would decrease by a combined $365.8 million per year. (See
Figure 12 on page 36 for state-by-state estimates.)

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

3

Introduction

I

n 2016, more than 626,000 people were released from federal and state
prisons and returned to communities across the United States.6 Their
odds of securing employment, housing, and other necessities after release
depended, in part, on opportunities available to them while in prison. Few
such opportunities benefit incarcerated people as much as a postsecondary
education—a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma.7
Most incarcerated people lack the financial resources to pay for
postsecondary schooling.8 Thus, the opportunity for them to earn a
postsecondary credential while in prison depends in large part on public
funding, which has been scarce since the mid-1990s. They face a significant
failure of public policy: education is a road toward improving their lives
when they leave prison that the current system makes it all but impossible
to reach.
It was not always this way.
The Federal Pell Grant Program, authorized in 1972, provided
financial support for education for low-income undergraduate students,
including people in prison.9 By the early 1990s, there were more than
770 postsecondary programs in nearly 1,300 prisons.10 But in 1994, as
policymakers adopted more punitive approaches to the rising crime rate,
Congress revoked incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants with the
passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
For a quarter-century, people in prison have lacked a reliable or
consistent funding source for postsecondary education.11 This absence
of funding has translated into fewer educational opportunities for
incarcerated people, contributing to the challenges they face on reentry.
Because they often have limited educational attainment before entering
prison, formerly incarcerated people face profound challenges in the job
market without additional education and skills.12 Many remain locked in a
cycle of poverty and potential recidivism. Furthermore, the negative ripple
effect through the economy is significant, including fewer skilled workers
available to employers and increased incarceration costs for states as a
result of high recidivism rates.

4

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

This vicious cycle has affected larger numbers of people as U.S.
incarceration rates have ballooned: consider that from 1972 to 2010, the
prison population increased by 700 percent.13 As of this writing, there are
more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons.14
In recent years, state legislatures and the federal government have taken
steps to end mass incarceration and adopt a “smart-on-crime” approach to
criminal justice policy that includes decriminalization, sentencing reform,
and greater investments in reentry. Despite this progress, policymakers
have not yet moved to restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people.
Doing so must be part of the next phase of criminal justice reform.

The federal government does not need
to significantly increase spending on
Pell Grants in order for states and
families to realize these fiscal benefits,
given that the incarcerated student
population would be a tiny fraction of
the universe of Pell Grant recipients.

The benefits of restoring Pell Grants to students in prison are already
evident in various communities across the nation, thanks to a three-yearold pilot program begun by the Obama administration. In 2015, the U.S.
Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Experimental
Sites Initiative.15 “Second Chance Pell” allows 67 colleges and universities
to partner with prisons to offer incarcerated students postsecondary
education funded through Pell Grants.16
Anecdotal reports show the impact of these initiatives. Formerly
incarcerated people are filling jobs in a variety of industries, such
as advanced manufacturing, thanks to their Second Chance Pell

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

5

participation.17 As a result, formerly incarcerated people have increased
access to the quality, good-paying jobs they need to take care of themselves
and their families. The pilot is an important step in the right direction, but
there is ample evidence to support permanently and fully restoring Pell
Grants access to people in prison.
The analysis conducted by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and
Inequality (GCPI) presented in this report shows that reinstating federal
Pell Grant access for people in prison would likely yield a cascade of
economic and fiscal benefits. Formerly incarcerated people would reenter
the labor market with competitive skills and qualifications, leading
to higher rates of employment and increased earnings. Businesses in
expanding industries subsequently would have a larger pool of potential
job applicants, making it easier to grow and hire a trained workforce. States
also would benefit as a greater number of formerly incarcerated people
likely would successfully reenter their communities rather than wind up
involved with the criminal justice system again, reducing expenditures on
incarceration, probation, and other related costs. 
Indeed, GCPI’s analysis yields a midpoint estimate that increasing
postsecondary education in prison by expanding access to Pell Grants
to incarcerated people would result in a $45.3 million increase in the
combined earnings of formerly incarcerated workers during the first year
they return home (based on a 50 percent take-up rate of postsecondary
education by the eligible population). As more people leaving prison find
stable, good-paying jobs, research indicates that recidivism rates are likely
to decline, saving states a combined $365.8 million each year.18 (Unless
otherwise noted, all figures are in 2015 dollars.)
It is important to understand that the federal government does not need
to significantly increase spending on Pell Grants in order for states and
families to realize these fiscal benefits, given that the incarcerated student
population would be a tiny fraction of the universe of Pell Grant recipients.
Nearly 463,000 people in state prisons could be eligible for Pell Grants.19
In 2016–2017, nearly 7.2 million students in the community received a Pell
Grant, totaling $26.9 billion in awards; the average grant was $3,738 (all in
2017 dollars).20 Even in the virtually impossible scenario that all eligible
people in state prisons receive an award in a single year, total Pell Grant

6

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

costs would rise less than 10 percent. In reality, the expected impact on
total Pell Grant costs likely would be much smaller.
In the remainder of this report the authors will:
›› discuss current participation in education programs in prison;
›› present estimates on the size of the Pell-eligible population in
prison;
›› review current research on the impacts postsecondary education in
prison programs have on employment and recidivism rates;
›› present estimates on the employment and wage impact of restoring
incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants; and
›› present estimates on the monetary savings to states.

Listening to experience: Aaron Kinzel
In 1997, at the age of 18, I made the biggest mistake of my life
and initiated a violent confrontation with law enforcement
during a traffic stop in Maine. After an exchange of gunfire
and a high-speed chase, I was captured the following day
and charged with attempted murder of a police officer,
among seven other felony charges, and was facing life in
prison. Ultimately, I would receive a sentence of 19 years.
Inside Maine’s Department of Corrections, I was able to
receive vocational training and take several different collegelevel course modules through computers and textbooks.
However, I could not get academic credit because I could not
afford the cost of college tuition. When people talk about
barriers to prison education, this is what they mean.
Toward the end of my confinement, I applied to the University
of Maine at Augusta and was accepted for admission with the
help of teachers at the prison. I saved enough money to pay
for one three-credit correspondence college-level course in
psychology and earned an A at the end of the semester. This
success empowered me to find other higher-ed opportunities
and helped structure my parole release around attending
college the following year, where I’d begin my path toward

earning my Associate of Applied Science and Bachelor of Arts
degrees with honors.
Despite my degrees, I still struggled to find employment
because of the serious nature of my criminal convictions.
I was unwilling to give up and return to my previous life
because of the transformation I had undergone; I was lucky
that people were also not willing to give up on me.
Today, I am not only employed but am a teacher myself. For
the past three years, I’ve taught undergraduate and masters
courses in criminology and criminal justice at the University
of Michigan–Dearborn while I pursue my doctorate. Teaching
provides me the opportunity to give back to my community
and give students a real-world perspective on how our
criminal justice system does and should function.
None of this would have been possible had I not received an
education that gave me the knowledge, confidence, work
ethic, and leadership skills required to overcome many of the
barriers to reentry that still, unfortunately, meet many people
when they are released from prison.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

7

Participation in education
programs in prison and the
Pell-eligible population

I

n 2016, there were more than 1.5 million people in prison, including
1.3 million in state facilities.21 This section highlights some of the
key demographic characteristics of incarcerated people in state and
federal prisons and current rates of participation in prison educational
programs. A review of Program for the International Assessment of Adult
Competencies (PIAAC) data shows that, despite the fact that a majority
of incarcerated people are academically eligible to take postsecondarylevel courses, few are receiving that training.22 This section starts with a
description of the number and demographics of incarcerated people who
are currently engaged in education programs, then estimates how many
people could benefit from postsecondary education if access to Pell Grants
were reinstated.

Demographic profile of people
participating in education programs
in prison
Race, ethnicity, and age
The effects of mass incarceration have been felt most profoundly among
communities of color. Previous research has found significant racial
disparities in interaction with law enforcement and in incarceration rates.
For example, according to one analysis, African Americans are incarcerated
five times more than white people; Latinos are almost twice as likely as
whites to be incarcerated.23
Researchers have proposed explanations for these disparities, including
policies and practices that disparately affect people of color, structural

8

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

disparities faced by communities of color that are associated with higher
rates of crime and arrest, and implicit bias and stereotypes in decisionmaking.24 The history of discriminatory criminal justice policies and
practices can be traced back to postslavery-era attempts to exert continued
control over newly freed people with such policies as the Black Codes.25
Today, police are more likely to stop and detain African Americans than
whites; the charges brought against them are more serious and the
sentences they face are harsher.26
People of color, therefore, make up the majority of those in federal
and state prisons, with 71 percent of incarcerated men and 54 percent
of incarcerated women identifying as persons of color.27 The black, nonHispanic population makes up the largest share of incarcerated men, at
nearly 35 percent.28 Among incarcerated women, the white non-Hispanic
population is the largest racial or ethnic group, accounting for about 46
percent of all women in state and federal prisons. (See Figure 1 below.)

Figure 1

Distribution of state and federal prison population by race and
gender, 2016
Black, non-Hispanic

Hispanic

White, non-Hispanic

46.4%
34.5%
23.7%

28.9%
19.3% 18.3%

Men

Women

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics, 2016.
Note: BJS does not report races other than the three included in this chart.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

9

The vast majority of people in and released from federal and state
prisons are of working age. In 2016, the prime working-age population
(ages 25–54) accounted for about 78 percent and 83 percent of incarcerated
men and women, respectively.29 (See Figure 2 below.)

Educational attainment
The majority of the incarcerated population is academically eligible to
advance to postsecondary level classes. Research also shows that people
who are in prison generally have lower levels of education than the
nonincarcerated population; 64 percent of people (ages 18–74) who were
incarcerated in federal and state prisons had at most a high school degree or
its equivalent, compared to 50 percent of the nonincarcerated population,
according to data collected in 2012 and 2014.30 (See Figure 3 on page 11.)

Figure 2

Distribution of state and federal prison population by age and
gender, 2016
18–24

25–34

35–44

45–54

55–65

66+

Prime
working age

Prime
working age

Total: 77.6%

Total: 83.3%

31.8%

37.1%
28.4%

27.0%
18.8%

10.8%

17.8%
9.2%

8.9%

6.2%

2.7%
Men

1.3%

Women

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics, 2016.
Note: "Prime working age" is defined as 25–54 years.

10

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 3

Educational attainment of incarcerated people (18–74) and the
nonincarcerated population (16–74), 2012 and 2014
% of incarcerated population

% of nonincarcerated population

64%
50%

30%
17%

14%
4%

11%

9%
1%

1%

Below high

High school

Associate

Bachelor's

Graduate or

school

credential

degree

degree

professional
degree

Source: U.S. Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2012 and 2014.
Note: U.S. household data collection occurred in 2012 and 2014 and U.S. prison data collection occurred in 2014.

Job training, vocational, and education
programs
Despite the fact that the majority of incarcerated people are academically
eligible for postsecondary-level courses and have an interest in enrolling,
few do so while in prison.
Overall, nearly six in 10 people in prison do not earn a higher level of
education while they are incarcerated. Among those who do advance their
education, the most common program that incarcerated students complete
is a high school degree or GED. (See Figure 4 on page 12.) A mere 9 percent
of people in prison complete a postsecondary education while incarcerated,
7 percent receive a certificate from a college or trade school, and 2 percent
complete an associate degree.
The low postsecondary education attainment rate among incarcerated
people does not appear to arise from disinterest. In fact, data suggests that
there are many more incarcerated people who would like to enroll in these
programs than do so. In 2014, 70 percent of people in prison expressed
a desire to enroll in an academic program.31 Twenty-nine percent of this
group wanted to enroll in a certificate-granting program, and about 18
Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

11

Figure 4

Distribution of incarcerated adults by the highest level of
education completed during their current incarceration, 2014
8%
Grades 7–9
High school or GED
Pre-associate education
21%

Certificate from a college
or trade school
Associate degree
No further education

58%

completed
4%
7%
2%
Source: This chart is based on Table 3.1 from US Department of Education, Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey
of Incarcerated Adults, 2016.
Note: The percent of incarcerated adults completing a BA during incarceration rounds to zero.

Figure 5

Distribution of incarcerated adults wishing to enroll in an
educational program, by degree or certificate they hope to
attain, 2014
5%

High school or GED
Pre-associate education
Certificate from a college
or trade school

1% 2%
18%

14%

Associate degree
Bachelor's degree

13%

Master's degree
Professional degree
Doctorate

18%

29%
Source: This chart is based on Table 3.5 from U.S. Department of Education, Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC
Survey of Incarcerated Adults, 2016.

12

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

percent wanted to study for an associate degree.32 The full distribution of
people who wanted to enroll in an academic program is depicted by type of
program in Figure 5 on page 12.

The potentially Pell-eligible state prison
population
A large number of people in prison stand to benefit from restoring
their access to Pell Grants. As Figures 2 and 3 on pages 10 and 11 show,
a significant portion of the prison population are of prime working
age (25–54) and have at least a high school degree or GED. This section
examines the number of incarcerated people who would likely qualify
for a Pell Grant if the ban were lifted. This report defines “Pell-eligible” as
incarcerated people who are 18–54, do not have a life sentence, and have a
high school degree or GED. The researchers used the National Corrections
Reporting Program (NCRP) to identify what share of the state prison
population met these parameters. The parameters for life sentence do not
perfectly match the requirements for Pell Grants prior to the 1994 ban. (See
Appendix B: Methodology for a discussion of this issue.)
Income is a primary determining factor of Pell eligibility for
nonincarcerated students; in 2016–2017, roughly 90 percent of Pell Grant
recipients had a family income of $50,000 or less (in 2017 dollars).33
Given the nature of incarceration and specifically the inability of people
in prison to earn even the minimum wage, the analysis assumes that all
incarcerated students meet the income requirements for a Pell Grant. It is
important to note, too, that the vast majority of incarcerated students likely
have met the income requirements for a Pell Grant prior to incarceration.
Researchers have found that preincarceration earnings are extremely low;
the median earnings prior to incarceration, according to one analysis, were
41 percent less than the median earnings of workers who have not been
incarcerated.34 Another study estimated that in the three years prior to
incarceration, median annual earnings among prime working-age men who
were employed were $6,250.35
In addition to eligibility requirements stipulated by the Pell Grants
program, correctional facilities may implement their own standards, which
may limit postsecondary enrollment. For example, some facilities may not
Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

13

allow incarcerated students to enroll in courses if they have significant
disciplinary records. Correctional facilities also may require prospective
students to have at least one year left until their release date or no more
than 10 years until their release date. Given that there is no accessible
and reliable documentation of which facilities currently use or would use
standards such as these, this estimation of the Pell-eligible population
does not reflect the impact of such practices. Notably, these additional
factors would not make incarcerated people ineligible for Pell Grants but
rather would create additional barriers to their access to postsecondary
education programs.
GCPI estimates that there are nearly 463,000 people in state prisons
who are of working age, academically eligible to begin postsecondary level
courses, and not serving a life sentence.36 (See Figure 6 on page 15.) The
estimates in this study do not include people in prison who have taken
some college courses without completing a degree, because NCRP does not
distinguish between these individuals and those who complete a college
degree. Therefore, the number of people in state prisons who would be
eligible for a Pell Grant is likely higher than these estimates reflect.
Other aspects of available data affected the scope of the analysis in this
study. First, the estimated size of the Pell-eligible population is limited to
people in state prisons because the sections that follow estimate benefits
by state, and the researchers were not able to identify specific states to
which people who are incarcerated in federal prisons will return upon
release. Therefore, because the authors could not assign the benefits
resulting from students in federal prisons having access to Pell Grants
to particular states, they used only state prison data. If the analysis had
included students in federal facilities, the estimated benefits would be
greater. Second, the estimated size of the Pell-eligible population may
seem high to some practitioners in the field, given the very real barriers
to accessing programs that incarcerated students face. In an attempt to
identify the population that is both Pell-eligible and likely allowed to enroll
in programs, the authors have generated additional estimates that exclude
people who are expected to be released in less than one year. Using this
more conservative approach, the total Pell-eligible population would be
roughly 352,000. (See Figure 13 on page 39 and Appendix B: Methodology
for more on state-level data.)

14

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 6

Lifting the ban on Pell Grants could help nearly 500,000 incarcerated people
Estimated Pell-eligible population by state

State

Potentially Pelleligible in 2016

Pell-eligible
population as a
share of total
state prison
population

(Table continued)
State

Potentially
Pell-eligible
in 2016

Pell-eligible
population as a
share of total
state prison
population

Alabama

8,819

30.5%

Montana

1,310

34.4%

Alaska

2,230

50.3%

Nebraska

1,912

36.1%

Arizona

17,787

42.0%

Nevada

4,225

30.7%

Arkansas

6,239

35.6%

New Hampshire

1,018

36.1%

California

38,855

29.8%

New Jersey

7,239

36.6%

Colorado

7,326

36.7%

New Mexico

2,473

35.1%

Connecticut

6,619

44.3%

New York

20,143

39.7%

Delaware

2,453

37.3%

North Carolina

9,566

26.8%

Florida

32,793

32.8%

North Dakota

628

35.1%

Georgia

10,867

20.3%

Ohio

17,515

33.6%

Hawaii

2,068

36.9%

Oklahoma

9,560

35.6%

Idaho

3,141

38.1%

Oregon

5,317

35.1%

Illinois

16,278

37.3%

Pennsylvania

16,757

34.0%

Indiana

3,660

14.3%

Rhode Island

1,113

35.9%

Iowa

5,488

60.8%

South Carolina

3,702

17.7%

Kansas

3,408

34.4%

South Dakota

2,233

58.3%

Kentucky

8,796

38.2%

Tennessee

10,288

36.5%

Louisiana

11,916

33.4%

Texas

76,672

46.8%

Maine

1,107

46.1%

Utah

1,691

27.4%

Maryland

6,941

34.7%

Vermont

665

38.4%

Massachusetts

1,522

16.2%

Virginia

13,397

35.4%

Michigan

13,704

33.3%

Washington

7,771

40.7%

Minnesota

4,868

46.0%

West Virginia

1,939

27.1%

Mississippi

6,167

32.1%

Wisconsin

10,194

43.6%

11,495

35.4%

Wyoming

815

34.3%

462,690

35.2%

Missouri

Total
Source: Authors' analysis. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

15

The history of Pell Grants
Educational programs, and postsecondary education
in particular, have a long history in U.S. prisons.
Correspondence college courses for people in prison started
to spread across states in the 1930s; face-to-face college
courses expanded in the mid- to late 1960s.a Project NewGate
at Oregon State Prison—a comprehensive postsecondary
program including tutoring and a range of other student
supports—became a model that several other states had
adopted by 1971.

every state.n By fall 2017, the partner institutions were serving
5,053 incarcerated students.o Under this pilot program,
incarcerated students must use Pell Grants to access creditbearing courses that result in a certificate or degree. For
example, students enrolled in courses in Massachusetts
can earn a certificate in small business management
through Mount Wachusett Community College.p Combined,
participating colleges are offering 822 certificates, 69
associate degrees, and 24 bachelor’s degrees.q

In 1972, Congress established the Federal Pell Grant program,
for which incarcerated people were eligible.b Pell Grants
aimed to help people with low incomes access college or
vocational training programs.c By 1982 there were 350
postsecondary programs in prisons, with 27,000 enrolled
incarcerated students.d By the early 1990s, the number of
prison programs exceeded 770 in nearly 1,300 facilities.e

There is bipartisan support for proposals to restore full access
to Pell Grants. Senator Lamar Alexander—a Republican from
Tennessee who is chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions Committee—said the committee would consider
offering incarcerated people access to Pell Grants through
the reauthorized version of the Higher Education Act currently
making its way through Congress.r In February 2018, Senator
Brian Schatz (a Hawaii Democrat) introduced a bill to restore
Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison called the Restoring
Education and Learning (REAL) Act.s

Since their inception, Pell Grants have been the primary
mechanism by which low-income students (including those in
prison) pay for postsecondary education.f In 1992, Congress
took its first step to limit incarcerated students’ ability to
access Pell Grants by passing legislation that excluded
people serving a life sentence and those sentenced to death.g
It also included an amendment that required states to show
that Pell Grant funding would “supplement, rather than
supplant, state funding.”h To meet this requirement, states
had to maintain their Fiscal Year 1988 funding levels for
tuition assistance to incarcerated students.i According to an
analysis by the General Accounting Office, seven states did
not meet this requirement, effectively barring incarcerated
students in those states from securing Pell Grants. Despite
these obstacles, 23,000 incarcerated students received Pell
Grants in the 1993–1994 award cycle.j
In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and
Law Enforcement Act, which included an amendment that
excluded all incarcerated students from the Pell Grant
program.k As a result, the number of and enrollment in
postsecondary education programs in prison rapidly
declined. For example, in 1991, 14 percent of people in prison
took college-level courses; by 2004, participation had fallen
to 7 percent.l
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of
Education in July 2015 established the Second Chance Pell
Experimental Sites Initiative. Partnering with 67 colleges in
27 states, the Education Department began awarding Pell
Grants for postsecondary education and training to people
in state and federal prisons.m These 67 colleges were chosen
from an applicant pool of more than 200 colleges in nearly

16

Thom Gehring, “Post-Secondary Education for Inmates: An
Historical Inquiry,” Journal of Correctional Education 48, no. 2 (1997),
46–55, https://perma.cc/92Q2-64AQ.
a	

Charmaine Mercer, “Federal Pell Grants for Prisoners,” December
2004.
b	

SpearIt, “Restoring Pell Grants for Prisoners – Growing Momentum
for Reform,” The State of Criminal Justice 2016, https://perma.
cc/5XHU-A7LG.
c	

Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English, The Second Chance Pell
Pilot Program: A Historical Overview (Washington, DC: American
Enterprise Institute, 2017), http://www.aei.org/publication/thesecond-chance-pell-pilot-program-a-historical-overview/.
d	

e	

Ibid.

Sung-Woo Cho, James Jacobs, and Christine Zhang, Demographic
and Academic Characteristics of Pell Grant Recipients at Community
Colleges (New York: Community College Research Center, 2013),
https://perma.cc/N9LY-B8S9.
f	

g	

Mercer, 2004.

Linda G. Morra, “Pell Grants for Prison Inmates,” letter to Senator
Harris Wofford, August 5, 1994, Government Accountability Office.
(GAO) August 1994, https://perma.cc/N9AP-EX3C.
h	

i	

Ibid.

j	

Ibid.

k	

United States Congress, House of Representatives, “H.R.3355 -

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994,” https://
www.congress.gov/bill/103rd-congress/house-bill/3355/text.
Michelle S. Phelps, “Rehabilitation in the Punitive Era: The Gap
between Rhetoric and Reality in U.S. Prison Programs,” Law & Society
Review 45, no. 1 (2011), 33-68, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
pmc/articles/PMC3762476/. Note: this decline is not easily or readily
explained by other factors.
l	

Alex Boldin, “Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative
Update” (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, June 2018), https://
perma.cc/H3DY-L3ZP.
m	

Fred Patrick, “The Case for College in Prison,” The Hill, July 18, 2016,
https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/crime/288226-the-case-forcollege-in-prison.
n	

o	

Boldin, 2018.

Sam Bonacci, “First Class in Second Chance Pell Program,”
Community College Daily, July 18, 2018, https://perma.cc/2F8PKLHL.
p	

q	

Boldin, 2018.

Erica L. Green, “Senate Leaders Reconsider Ban on Pell Grants for
Prisoners,” New York Times, February 15, 2018, https://perma.cc/
V6V5-2ULJ.
r	

Office of Senator Brian Schatz, “Schatz Introduces Legislation
to Restore Educational Opportunities for Those Incarcerated and
Improve Public Safety,” press release, February 14, 2018, https://
perma.cc/8ANB-J3H7.
s	

Established effects of
postsecondary education
in prison

I

n analyzing the likely impact of reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated
people, GCPI drew on important bodies of literature demonstrating
that postsecondary education in prison improves formerly incarcerated
people’s likelihood of achieving formal employment and reduces their
likelihood of returning to prison. These findings translate into financial
gains for people, and cost savings for the state through lower incarceration
numbers.

Postsecondary education in prison
programs and the labor market
Formerly incarcerated workers tend to have lower levels of education
and less formal work experience than those who have not been in prison
and, therefore, fare worse in the labor market.37 Upon reentry, they work
fewer weeks and their wages are typically lower than those of the average
worker.38 One study that used data from the Internal Revenue Service
found that about half of formerly incarcerated people found formal work
Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

17

within the first year of returning home.39 Among those who had a job,
average annual earnings during the first full year after release were about
$13,900, less than full-time, year-round minimum-wage earnings.40
Even after controlling for education, work history, and a host of
other factors, workers who were at one point incarcerated have lower
employment levels and earn less than comparable workers who have never
faced incarceration.41 According to estimates by researchers Bruce Western
and Becky Pettit, for men, incarceration reduces hourly wages by 11
percent, decreases annual employment by nine weeks, and lowers annual
earnings by 40 percent.42 These impacts have cumulative effects over the
course of a formerly incarcerated worker’s career.

Formerly incarcerated workers
tend to have lower levels of education
and less formal work experience.
Upon reentry, they work fewer weeks
and their wages are typically lower
than those of the average worker.

Postsecondary education will not eliminate the disparities in
employment or wages between formerly incarcerated workers and those
who have not been incarcerated. Nonetheless, postsecondary education
and training in prison has the potential to improve economic outcomes
for formerly incarcerated people in a very meaningful way. A seminal
meta-analysis conducted by RAND in 2013 and updated in 2018 found that
employment rates were higher among workers who had participated in
an educational program while in prison compared to those who had not.43
This meta-analysis, which included studies published between 1980 and
2017, found that, overall, the odds of being employed after incarceration
were 12 percent higher for people who had participated in any educational

18

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

or vocational programs while in prison.44 The authors ranked studies by
how well they controlled for differences between those who participated
in education and comparison groups, in an effort to identify the impact of
program participation itself. The meta-analysis included only experimental
or quasi-experimental studies. Based on RAND’s full analysis—which
includes estimates of effects grouped by how convincing the underlying
study was at identifying a causal impact—appears the effects identified
provide reasonable estimates of potential employment (and recidivism)
impacts among incarcerated people who would participate in postsecondary
education if Pell Grants were extended to students in prison.
There is limited research on how participating in a postsecondary
education program in prison may affect hourly wages, earnings, or
hours worked, but some studies show a positive association. One study
of formerly incarcerated people in Minnesota found that earning a
postsecondary degree in prison was associated with higher earnings
and greater number of hours worked.45 Other studies have considered
the impact of secondary and adult basic education (ABE) programs on
employment outcomes. In one analysis of educational programs in Florida’s
prisons, researchers found, after controlling for observable characteristics,
that men who took part in ABE programs had higher earnings and
employment rates upon returning home.46
The research discussed above indicates that greater educational
attainment in prison will enable formerly incarcerated people to enter the
labor market better positioned for good-paying jobs.

Postsecondary education in prison
programs and recidivism
Nearly half of people released from prison are incarcerated again within
three years.47 Recidivism rates are higher among men, people of color, and
younger people.48 A host of dynamic factors affect recidivism, including
reconnection to family, drug and alcohol use, restrictions on access to
services, housing and neighborhood conditions, and employment.49
A variety of interventions—from education, and substance-use
counseling to cognitive-behavioral therapy—have been found to have
varying degrees of effectiveness in lowering a person’s likelihood of
Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

19

recidivating.50 A review of literature that considers the relationship
between postsecondary education programs and reincarceration rates
indicates that participation in postsecondary education programs in prison
is associated with lower recidivism rates. The RAND report discussed on
the previous two pages, found that on average the odds of recidivating
are 48 percent less for those who take part in postsecondary education
programs in prison than for those in prison who do not.51
It is difficult for researchers to fully control for self-selection biases: In
this case, people who wish to participate in a prison educational program,
whether or not they take part in one, may inherently be less likely to
recidivate.52 When RAND limited its meta-analysis to the studies that
most rigorously mitigated these biases, the odds of recidivating were
still significantly lower for people who engaged in a prison educational
program.53 Thus, while a self-selection bias may exist and might affect the
magnitude of results, RAND’s and others’ work seems to suggest that this
bias alone does not fully explain away findings of lower rates of recidivism
among postsecondary education program participants.
The research described above supports a rather intuitive notion:
someone leaving prison with a higher level of education—and therefore
potentially greater job prospects and higher earnings—would be less likely
to recidivate compared to someone with a lower level of education and
perhaps fewer economic opportunities. In the two sections that follow, the
authors present GCPI’s analysis of the potential economic benefits of lifting
the Pell Grant ban. Specifically, the sections discuss GCPI’s estimates of the
employment and earnings impact of restoring incarcerated students’ access
to Pell Grants and the financial savings that states may accrue if recidivism
rates are lower among Pell Grant recipients.

20

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Restoring Pell Grant access
would improve odds of
employment among formerly
incarcerated people

E

xpanding opportunities for incarcerated people to participate in
postsecondary education programs will go a long way toward
improving their employment outcomes when they return home.
Equipped with higher levels of education, formerly incarcerated workers
will qualify for more, and often better-paying, jobs. This section estimates
the potential impact of restoring Pell Grant access to people in prison on
their employment rates and earnings when released.
Previous research has calculated the effect that prison-based
postsecondary education has on students’ post-release employment and
earnings (discussed in “Postsecondary education in prison programs and
the labor market” on page 17). GCPI applied the findings of that research
to the baseline employment rates of formerly incarcerated workers in
individual states, taking into account the number of people who would
be eligible for a Pell Grant. In doing so, GCPI estimated the post-release
employment rate for each state if the federal government reinstated
Pell Grant access for people in prison. The researchers were then able
to calculate the likely increase in combined total earnings for formerly
incarcerated people in each state.
The analysis presented below shows that, on average, lifting the ban
on Pell Grants for people in prison would increase state employment rates
of formerly incarcerated workers who participated in a postsecondary
program by 4.7 percentage points, or nearly 10 percent. This would
increase the employment rates among all formerly incarcerated workers by
1.0 percentage points, which translates into a nearly $45.3 million increase
in combined earnings of workers during the calendar year of their release.54
(See Figures 8 and 9 on pages 27 and 28.) As a point of comparison,

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

21

Barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people
A growing body of research has found that workers who
were once incarcerated face numerous obstacles in the
labor market—beginning when they are selecting a potential
occupation, and continuing throughout the hiring process
and even once they are employed.a

be called back for an interview.k An experimental study
commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice similarly
found that women with a history of incarceration were less
likely than comparably qualified applicants to be called back
by a prospective employer.l

Occupational licenses
Today, more than 25 percent of workers must obtain a
license or certificate to work legally in their occupation.b In
many states, workers with a criminal record are barred from
certain occupational licenses.c According to one analysis,
states have, on average, 56 occupational licensing laws
that automatically prevent formerly incarcerated people
from being approved for specific licenses.d For example,
in California, formerly incarcerated people are unable to
become firefighters, despite the fact that many of them
have helped fight wildfires while incarcerated, earning
far below a minimum wage. Additionally, many state laws
contain ambiguous “good moral character” requirements
that can result in formerly incarcerated workers being denied
a license.e For example, in one instance highlighted by the
National Employment Law Project (NELP), a prospective
worker was initially denied a cosmetology license because,
seven years earlier, she had been pulled into an altercation
outside of her home and ended up with a felony conviction.f
Including blanket bans and other hurdles, there are more
than 27,000 occupational licensing restrictions across the
United States relating to criminal records.g

The negative impact of incarceration on employment varies
substantially by race.m

The impact of these exclusions does not simply mean that
formerly incarcerated people have fewer jobs available to
them. Research has found that average hourly wages in
occupations that require a license are typically higher than
those in unlicensed occupations. Unlicensed workers’ wages
are 10 percent to 15 percent less than those of licensed
workers with similar education, training, and experience.h
Thus, licensing exclusions for formerly incarcerated people
can create a significant barrier to breaking out of a cycle
of poverty. Across the country, there is growing support for
reforming occupational licensing laws. Nearly a dozen states
have recently revised occupational licensing requirements
to make it easier for people with a criminal record to secure
certain occupational licenses.i

a	

Hiring process
Formerly incarcerated applicants routinely face
discrimination during the hiring process.j In a seminal
experimental study by Devah Pager, employers received
identical employment applications, except for conviction
history, from paired job seekers; Pager found that male
applicants with a criminal record were far less likely to

22

According to the Pager study, the callback rate for white
male applicants with a criminal record was 50 percent less
than the callback rate for comparable applicants without a
criminal record (17 percent compared to 34 percent).n Among
black men, the callback rate was nearly three times lower
for those with a criminal record (5 percent compared to 14
percent).o These findings suggest that employers are more
likely to discriminate on the basis of incarceration history
when an applicant is a person of color.
The fact that prospective employees are often required to
divulge any criminal history at the initial application stage
without the opportunity to explain it fuels discrimination
based on criminal records during hiring. Some states and
localities are taking steps to eliminate criminal history
questions from applications, as discussed later in this report.
(See “Restoring Pell Grant access to incarcerated people
would benefit employers” on page 30.)

Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery, Unlicensed and
Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for
People with Records (New York: National Employment Law Project,
April 26, 2016), https://perma.cc/T7F2-UWUK. For a review of research
on the labor market outcomes of formerly incarcerated people, see
Bruce Western, Jeffrey R. Kling, and David F. Weiman, “The Labor
Market Consequences of Incarceration,” Crime & Delinquency 4, no.
3 (2001), 410-427, https://perma.cc/D63S-8MCX.
U.S. Department of Treasury, Council of Economic Advisers, and
Department of Labor, Occupational Licensing: A Framework for
Policymakers (Washington, DC: The White House, 2015), https://
perma.cc/B52U-B8JE.
b	

c	

Rodriguez and Avery, 2016.

d	

Ibid.

e	

Ibid.

f	

Ibid.

g	

Ibid.

h	

U.S. Department of Treasury, Council of Economic Advisers, and

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Department of Labor, 2015.
Maurice Emsellem, Beth Avery, and Phil Hernandez, Fair Chance
Licensing Reform Takes Hold in the States (New York: National
Employment Law Project, 2018), 15, https://perma.cc/VCF9-NMEX.
i	

For a review of the literature, see Scott H. Decker, Cassia Spohn,
Natalie R. Ortiz, and Eric Hedberg, Criminal Stigma, Race, Gender
and Employment: An Expanded Assessment of the Consequences of
Imprisonment for Employment (Washington, DC: National Institute of
Justice, 2014), https://perma.cc/P7VF-9E2X.
j	

Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American
Journal of Sociology 108, no. 5 (2003), 937–975, www.jstor.org/
stable/10.1086/374403. For a review of the literature, see Decker,
Spohn, Ortiz, and Hedberg, 2014.
k	

l	

Decker, Spohn, Ortiz, and Hedberg, 2014.

m	

Pager, 2003.

n	

Ibid.

o	

Ibid.

between 2016 and 2017 the employment rate among the prime-workingage population overall increased by 1.0 percentage point.55 Restoring full
access to Pell Grants is vital to ensuring that formerly incarcerated people
have a fair chance to build a financially secure future for themselves and
their families.

Estimating the employment and earnings
impact of lifting the ban on Pell Grants
As identified above, this section seeks to quantify the employment and
earnings impact of restoring incarcerated people’s access to Pell Grants.
Below is a short discussion of the methodologies used to arrive at each of
these estimates. (See Appendix B: Methodology for a full description of the
methods used in this study.)

Employment rates for formerly incarcerated
students
For each state, GCPI estimated an employment rate for people who
participated in postsecondary education programs. GCPI constructed
these estimates by applying the findings from RAND’s meta-analysis
to baseline employment rates for formerly incarcerated workers. For
example, in Pennsylvania, the employment rate for formerly incarcerated
workers is 45.3 percent for men and 46.8 percent for women (ages 18 to 64
during the calendar year of release). RAND’s meta-analysis found that the
odds of being employed were 22 percent higher for vocational program
participants than the odds of employment among nonparticipants.56
(RAND’s meta-analysis did not have an employment odds ratio for
postsecondary education programs; for further discussion of the use of the

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

23

odds ratio for vocational programs, see Appendix B). Given the baseline
employment rates in Pennsylvania and the aforementioned employment
odds ratio (1.22), the employment rate for men and women who participate
in postsecondary education programs in Pennsylvania would increase
to 50.3 percent and 51.8 percent, respectively. In short, in Pennsylvania,
employment rates among participants in postsecondary education
programs while in prison would increase by 5 percentage points. (See
Figure 10 on page 29 for state-by-state estimates.)
While these estimated employment impacts might initially appear
small, they are meaningful in the context of typical fluctuations in
employment-to-population ratios. For example, since the depths of the

Figure 7

Estimated employment rates for formerly incarcerated workers
in Pennsylvania by participation in postsecondary education
programs

45.3%

Men

50.3%

Participating
men

46.8%

Women

51.8%

Participating
women

Source: Adam Looney and Nicholas Turner, Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration (Washington,
DC: Brookings Institution, March 14, 2018), https://www.brookings.edu/research/work-and-opportunity-beforeand-after-incarceration/.
Estimates for men and women participating in postsecondary education programs based on authors' analysis.

24

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Great Recession, the national employment-to-population ratio of primeage men (25–54) increased by 5.7 percentage points; for prime-age women
(25–54), the employment-to-population ratio increased by 4.7 percentage
points.57 Similarly, between 2016 and 2017 the employment rate among
the prime working age population increased by one percentage point.58
In other words, the estimated increase in the employment-to-population
ratio among the affected population in Pennsylvania is nearly equivalent
to the overall increase in this ratio among prime-age workers during the
current economic expansion. (For further discussion of calculations and
methodology, see the Methodology section in Appendix B.) Nationally,
lifting the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison would increase state
employment rates of formerly incarcerated workers who participated in a
postsecondary program by 4.7 percentage points or nearly 10 percent.

Overall employment and earnings
Although a few studies indicate that earning a postsecondary degree
while in prison likely would increase earnings, they do not establish
with a degree of reasonable certainty how much earnings would increase
on average.59 Despite this limitation, GCPI constructed a conservative
estimate of the aggregate increase in earnings of the formerly incarcerated
population based on employment increases alone. In other words,
assuming that wages do not increase (although there is evidence to suggest

Estimating the take-up rate for postsecondary education in prison
The mid-level estimate uses a 50 percent take-up rate
based on the share of people who participate in high school
and GED courses while incarcerated; among men who
are academically eligible to enroll in high school or a GED
course, 47 percent participate in a program while in prison.a
It is reasonable to expect that with federal funding support,
participation in postsecondary education programs can
match the level in secondary education programs among
academically eligible people. The higher take-up rate of 75
percent is similar to the share of nonincarcerated people
who enroll in college for the fall semester following their

high school graduation. The lower-bound estimate uses
a 25 percent take-up rate, given that some correctional
facilities may not initially have adequate infrastructure for
postsecondary classrooms and may limit enrollment beyond
Pell eligibility criteria by imposing other requirements, such
as a minimal disciplinary history.

Authors’ calculations of the “Survey of Inmates in State and Federal
Correctional Facilities,” U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004,
https://perma.cc/Z626-AMN8.
a	

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

25

that they likely would), GCPI multiplied the estimated increase in the total
number of formerly incarcerated people employed in each state by average
annual earnings of formerly incarcerated workers in each state to estimate
the total increase in wages earned by the recently released population.

On average, lifting the ban on Pell
Grants for people in prison would
increase state employment rates of
formerly incarcerated workers who
participated in a postsecondary
program by 4.7 percentage points or
nearly 10 percent.

To estimate the increase in combined earnings, researchers modeled
an overall employment rate for the total recently released population in
each state assuming a 50 percent take-up rate for postsecondary education
programs. For example, if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible population in
Pennsylvania participated in a postsecondary education program while
in prison, then about 21 percent of all formerly incarcerated people ages
18–54 would return home with some postsecondary education. Assuming
the employment rate for nonparticipants remained at the baseline rate of
45.3 percent for men, while men’s employment rates for postsecondary
education participants were 50.3 percent, then the overall employment rate
for the released population would be 46.4 percent. Thus, restoring access
to Pell Grants would increase overall employment rates among all men
recently released from prison by 1.1 percentage points in Pennsylvania.
(See Figure 16 on page 42 for employment rates for women and other state
breakdowns.) An increase in the overall employment-to-population ratio
among the recently released population (men and women) would mean

26

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

that combined earnings in Pennsylvania would increase by more than $1.5
million in the first year after incarceration.
Given that the rate of participation will likely vary across states and
depends on a multitude of factors, a low (25 percent), middle (50 percent),
and high (75 percent) take-up rate were used across GCPI’s analysis;
consequently, a range of estimates is provided for all modeled figures.
Nationally, if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible population participated
in postsecondary education programs in prison, then the resulting
increase in employment-to-population ratios would mean that combined
earnings would increase by more than $45 million in the first year
after incarceration across all states included in the analysis. A rise
in employment rates and cumulative earnings among the formerly
incarcerated population also would lead to higher tax revenues for the
federal government as well as the states. (See Figures 8 and 9 for the full
range of estimates and Figure 10 for mid-level estimates by state. Low- and
high-level state estimates can be found in Appendix A.)

Figure 8

Postsecondary education programs in prison would boost
earnings of workers
Total increase in combined earnings (in millions)
$68.0

$45.3

$22.7

25% participation

50% participation

75% participation

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

27

Figure 9

Average percentage point change in employment rate of all
formerly incarcerated workers
Men

Women

0.5

0.5

25% participation

1.0

1.0

50% participation

1.6

1.5

75% participation

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: Participation rates indicate participation in postsecondary education programs in prison.

The estimates above illustrate the potential economic power of restoring
Pell Grant access to people in prison. Giving incarcerated students the
opportunity to earn a postsecondary education—whether a certificate,
associate degree, or beyond—will open doors to more job prospects, leading
to higher employment rates and likely even greater earnings. The impacts
are striking: based on GCPI’s mid-point estimates, lifting employment rates
of formerly incarcerated workers who participated in a postsecondary
program by an average of 4.7 percentage points (or nearly 10 percent)
would increase employment among all formerly incarcerated people by
roughly 1.0 percentage point, boosting the combined earnings of people
recently released from prison by roughly $45.3 million in just the first year
after release.

28

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 10

Impact of postsecondary education programs in prison on earnings and employment of formerly
incarcerated workers during their year of release, by state, at 50% take-up rate
Percentage
point increase
in employment
rate of formerly
incarcerated
workers who
participate in
postsecondary
education

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

(Table
continued)

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

Men

Women

Total

Montana

4.9

n/a

$134,460

$373,470

Nebraska

4.5

n/a

$192,022

4.9

$1,182,711

Nevada

4.9

4.9

$649,457

5.0

4.9

$882,989

New Hampshire

4.7

n/a

$114,162

California

4.5

4.2

$2,206,684

New Jersey

5.0

4.9

$650,390

Colorado

4.4

4.0

$1,060,608

New Mexico

4.7

4.8

$270,254

Connecticut

5.0

5.0

$396,880

New York

4.6

4.7

$1,682,061

Delaware

4.9

4.9

$217,156

North Carolina

5.0

4.9

$1,065,816

Florida

5.0

4.9

$2,415,074

North Dakota

n/a

n/a

n/a

Georgia

5.0

4.9

$742,695

Ohio

4.7

4.9

$1,249,422

Hawaii

4.9

4.7

$183,353

Oklahoma

4.8

4.4

$979,238

Idaho

4.5

4.5

$401,964

Oregon

n/a

n/a

n/a

Illinois

4.9

4.9

$2,143,974

Pennsylvania

5.0

5.0

$1,545,579

Indiana

4.9

4.6

$448,224

Rhode Island

4.8

n/a

$100,432

Iowa

4.5

4.6

$721,875

South Carolina

5.0

4.8

$236,344

Kansas

4.7

4.7

$578,081

South Dakota

3.7

n/a

$406,586

Kentucky

5.0

4.9

$1,091,429

Tennessee

4.8

5.0

$766,501

Louisiana

4.6

4.7

$1,731,139

Texas

4.9

5.0

$9,254,051

Maine

4.9

4.9

$61,781

Utah

4.8

4.6

$267,947

Maryland

4.8

4.9

$605,059

Vermont

n/a

n/a

n/a

Massachusetts

5.0

5.0

$125,203

Virginia

4.9

4.9

$684,466

Michigan

4.8

4.8

$807,808

Washington

4.9

4.9

$2,500,306

Minnesota

4.9

5.0

$819,243

West Virginia

5.0

4.9

$236,349

Mississippi

4.8

4.8

$463,725

Wisconsin

4.7

4.8

$489,449

Missouri

4.8

5.0

$1,089,255

Wyoming

1.1

1.0

$23,570

State

Men

Women

Total

Alabama

5.0

4.5

$1,091,341

Alaska

4.7

4.1

Arizona

5.0

Arkansas

State

Percentage
point increase
in employment
rate of formerly
incarcerated
workers who
participate in
postsecondary
education

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: Employment rates were not available for some states, and therefore authors were not able to generate estimates for every state.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

29

Restoring Pell Grant access to incarcerated people would benefit employers
Across the country, employers in sectors that are
experiencing robust job growth have realized the economic
potential of preparing incarcerated students for these
opportunities. From Washington to Wisconsin to Connecticut,
employers are hiring more formerly incarcerated students to
meet their business needs.a Employment projections indicate
that there will be numerous job openings over the next decade
that formerly incarcerated workers who get postsecondary
training in prison through reestablishment of their Pell
Grant eligibility could fill.b For example, in southeastern
Wisconsin’s manufacturing industries, there is a growing
need for computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinists.
CNC jobs are expected to increase by nearly 11 percent over
the next decade in Wisconsin, with an average of 390 job
openings each year.c Companies such as Snap-On have hired
workers who received CNC certificates from the Milwaukee
Area Technical College while incarcerated.d By ensuring that
there is a pipeline of workers with the skills needed to fill these
jobs, businesses are able to quickly and easily fill positions,
minimizing hiring costs and on-the-job training. The Bureau of
Labor Statistics projects that over the next decade there will
be, on average, five million job openings each year that have
entry-level education requirements ranging from above a high
school diploma to a bachelor’s degree.
Moreover, there is growing support for removing barriers to
employment among people with criminal records. In recent
years, 32 states and more than 150 cities have taken steps to
remove questions relating to job applicants’ criminal records
from the initial application phase.e In 11 states, all private
businesses are barred from asking such questions.f These
changes help to ensure that applicants are evaluated for jobs
based on their skills and potential, not a stigmatized past. In
2016, more than 300 companies employing a total of more
than five million people, from American Airlines to Starbucks,
made commitments to remove hiring barriers for workers with
a criminal record.g
In short, when employers move beyond the stigma associated
with criminal records and incarceration and formerly
incarcerated people gain greater opportunity for higher
education, employers can gain dedicated and hardworking
employees with previously untapped talent.
Case study: EDAC Technologies and Asnuntuck
Community College, a partnership that serves both
students in prison and employers
Manufacturing is on the rise in Connecticut, and employers
are eager to fill the many job openings. That’s where the
Second Chance Pell program at Asnuntuck Community
College comes in. Asnuntuck Community College has offered
both an associate degree and a certificate in manufacturing
to more than 230 students at four partnering Connecticut
prisons.h And many of those who enter manufacturing after

30

graduating from the program find success. One former
student is making $22 an hour (in 2018 dollars) and has the
third-highest productivity at his company, according to
Mary Bidwell, assistant dean of Asnuntuck’s Manufacturing
Technology Center.
Since June 2017, EDAC Technologies—a Connecticut-based
company that manufactures precision parts for sophisticated
machines and aircraft—has hired half a dozen graduates
of the Asnuntuck Second Chance Pell Program and plans
to hire more as positions open up. Dave Russell, director
of Next Generation Recruitment at EDAC, is proud of these
hires: “I have formerly incarcerated employees who are
successfully working full time making $20 an hour or more
and contributing in very positive ways to our company.” In
fact, he has expanded his recruitment efforts to the in-prison
graduation ceremonies for the Asnuntuck program.i

Seattle Times Staff, “Seattle Employers Offer Ex-Cons a ‘Second
Chance’,” Seattle Times, June 10, 2017, https://perma.cc/R2CS-4JVC;
David D. Haynes, “Throw the Books at Them: How More Training for
Wisconsin’s Prisoners Could Help Companies,” Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel, July 26, 2018, https://perma.cc/MH86-MPT4; Jacqueline
Rabe Thomas, “From Foster Care, to Prison, to College Graduation,
to …” CT Mirror, November 12, 2017, https://perma.cc/J529-4J62.
a	

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections 2016-2026,”
https://perma.cc/3P75-J2Q3.
b	

Authors’ analysis of Wisconsin long-term occupational projections
2016-2026, https://perma.cc/JN6F-CNFY.
c	

d	

Haynes, 2018.

Beth Avery and Phil Hernandez, “Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties,
and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies,” National Employment Law
Project, August 2018, https://perma.cc/9C5S-U8GH.
e	

f	

Ibid.

White House, “Fact Sheet: White House Announces New
Commitments to the Fair Chance Business Pledge and Actions to
Improve the Criminal Justice System,” press release, November 30,
2016, https://perma.cc/8DQ8-VDPG.
g	

Based on authors’ conversations with Dave Russell and Mary
Bidwell.
h	

i	

Ibid.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Restoring Pell Grant access to
incarcerated people would benefit states
Beyond improving the labor market outcomes of formerly incarcerated
workers, restoring incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants also would
benefit states.
Rising prison populations have weighed heavily on states’ finances.
Combined, states spend more than $43 billion per year on prisons.60
Expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated people may reduce
the cost of incarceration to states. As post-release conditions improve
through enhanced job prospects and earnings, recidivism among formerly
incarcerated people would decline, leading to a substantial reduction in
states’ incarceration costs.

While education alone does not
guarantee economic prosperity,
people with higher levels of
education tend to fare better in the
labor market.

This section presents estimates of how much money states stand to
save as a result of postsecondary education programs lowering recidivism
rates if Pell Grant access were reinstated. To construct these estimates,
GCPI calculated likely recidivism rates of people who participate in
postsecondary education programs for each state, allowing the researchers
to identify how many fewer formerly incarcerated people who had received
a Pell Grant would return to prison within three years as a result of their
participation in postsecondary programs. The researchers then drew on
per-person marginal cost of correctional facilities and the average length of
incarceration by state to estimate cost savings.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

31

Figure 11

Impact of postsecondary education programs on the cost of
state prisons
Combined decrease in states' annual expenditures on incarceration if…

25% of Pell-eligible

population participated in
postsecondary education

50% of Pell-eligible

population participated in
postsecondary education

75% of Pell-eligible

population participated in
postsecondary education

$182.9
million
$365.8
million
$548.7
million
Source: Authors' analysis. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

As explained in detail below, GCPI’s analysis found that lifting the ban
on Pell Grants for people in prison could reduce states’ incarceration costs
by a combined $365.8 million each year. In addition to these quantified
savings, states also would likely experience gains as a result of a reduction
in parole and probation supervision and increases in tax revenue stemming
from higher employment and wages—factors that are not included in the
scope of GCPI’s analysis.
The section that follows identifies how much states could save if
incarcerated students were able to receive Pell Grants. It begins by
reviewing recent trends in state spending on prisons.

Rising state prison expenditures
As state prison populations exploded from the 1970s through the late
2000s, state spending on prisons also ballooned.61 Between 1982 and 2000,
total state correctional expenditures increased by 256 percent, in real
terms.62 Similarly, prison expenditures as a share of total state spending
nearly doubled over this period. By 2010, states’ combined spending on

32

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

prisons made up 3.3 percent of total state expenditures, up from 1.9 percent
in 1982.63
A survey of 45 states (accounting for about 97 percent of the state
prison population) by the Vera Institute of Justice found that, in 2015, these
states were spending nearly $43 billion on prison.64 The annual cost per
prisoner averaged $33,274 across these states.65 Researchers have estimated
that the short-term marginal cost rate is 14 percent, meaning that the
cost associated with each additional incarcerated person is 14 percent of
the average cost per prisoner. Nationally, the short-term marginal cost is
$4,658 (or 14 percent of $33,274).

Estimating the impact of lifting the ban on
Pell Grants on states
Reduced recidivism
As a starting point for this component of the analysis, GCPI researchers
identified a three-year recidivism rate for each state based on a survey
administered by the Pew Trusts.66 They then modeled a likely recidivism
rate for people who participated in postsecondary programs while
incarcerated. For example, in Wisconsin, the three-year recidivism rate is
46.0 percent. RAND’s meta-analysis found that the odds of recidivating
for postsecondary education participants are 48 percent less than the odds
for nonparticipants; the odds ratio for these two groups was 0.52. Using
this odds ratio, the GCPI researchers calculated that the recidivism rate for
people who participated in a postsecondary program in Wisconsin would
drop to an estimated 30.7 percent.
To estimate an overall recidivism rate for the released population in
each state, GCPI first estimated what share of the released population was
of working age (18-54) and would be eligible for a Pell Grant. As explained
earlier, since take-up rates for postsecondary education programs will
vary across states and depend on a host of factors, the researchers created
a series of estimates based on three different take-up rates: 25 percent, 50
percent, and 75 percent.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

33

To continue the example of Wisconsin, roughly 5,700 people were
released from prison in 2016. If 50 percent of the Pell-eligible population
participated in a postsecondary education program, then about 23 percent
of the total released population would be reentering the community with
some postsecondary education. For this group, the recidivism rate is
estimated to be 30.7 percent (as discussed above), while, for the remaining
share of the population, the recidivism rate is assumed to remain at the
baseline of 46.0 percent. This translates to a 42.4 percent overall recidivism
rate estimate for people released from prison in Wisconsin if they had
access to Pell Grants.

Potential cost savings
The midpoint modeled recidivism rate of 42.4 percent for Wisconsin
suggests that, if people in state prison had access to Pell Grants, about 206
fewer people would return to prison within three years of their release. The
annual marginal cost of incarceration per prisoner is roughly $5,400 in
Wisconsin and the average sentence length is 4.7 years. Thus, if 206 fewer
people recidivate each year, then Wisconsin stands to see correctional costs
decrease by about $5.2 million for each year that people leaving prison had
access to Pell Grants while incarcerated. In fact, the projected cost savings
could be as high as $7.9 million if 75 percent of the Pell-eligible prison
population participated in postsecondary education. (See Appendix A: Cost
savings associated with postsecondary education programs by state, on
page 39.)
For the 48 states included in this analysis, the average state’s
correctional costs would decrease by an estimated $7.6 million for each
year in which people released from prison had access to Pell Grants while
incarcerated. Across these states, prison costs would decline by $365.8
million each year if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible prison population
participated in postsecondary education programs. (See Figure 11 on page
32.) Prison costs would decline by $548.7 million if 75 percent participated.
Figure 12 identifies state-level cost savings estimates for the medium takeup rate of 50 percent. (For low take-up [25 percent] and high take-up [75
percent] estimates by state, see Appendix A on page 39.)
It is clear from the analysis that states stand to gain significantly if
the federal government restores access to Pell Grants to people in prison.

34

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Doing so would give states a powerful financial incentive to enroll as
many incarcerated people as possible in credential-granting postsecondary
education programs. The current shortage of postsecondary education
programs in prisons stems largely from inadequate funding. Restoring
Pell Grant access to people in prison could allow correctional facilities
and educational institutions to establish new postsecondary education
programs and expand those that currently exist.

Listening to experience: Aminah Elster
As a child, I always dreamed of attending the University
of California, Berkeley. Instead of an institution of higher
learning, I found myself inside of a California penal
institution.

available in prison. I also wanted to obtain bachelor’s and
master’s degrees, but couldn’t afford the courses required
to earn credits, one of the most common barriers students in
prison face.

After six years in jail (where I earned my GED), I was
transferred to the Valley State Prison for Women in
Chowchilla, California. I was excited to learn that I might
have the opportunity to take college classes, but I had to
wait two more years on the Feather River College waiting
list. Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. I know many
people who are eager to obtain a college education in prison
but are denied or delayed for one reason or another.

Despite this, I earned an associate degree in liberal arts and
humanities and obtained additional certificates in business
and entrepreneurship. After my release, I was able to secure
employment with relative ease and I was also accepted into
my dream school, UC Berkeley, within a year of being home.

Still, the wait was worth it as the postsecondary courses I
enrolled in helped open my eyes to a bigger world. Before, I
was mentally confined to the few blocks where I grew up. My
college-level courses opened my mind and eyes to the greater
world around me and challenged me to want a better life
outside of prison.
It was inside a prison classroom that I had my first full
conversation in another language and learned to appreciate
art. It was while sitting in those very same classrooms that I
began to stop assigning my bad choices to others, as I grew
acquainted with accountability.

Without the postsecondary courses in prison, my life could
very well be different than it is today, which is why I think
it’s so critical to remove barriers to accredited, college-level
courses inside.
I want people to understand how transformative
postsecondary education in prison can be. I would also like
people to know that prisoners are people, too. Many like myself
just never had the support of loved ones encouraging their
success in higher learning, and therefore never pursued it.
However, the community many folks develop inside the
classroom is one of strong support and determination that
leads to a better future with greater opportunity. The more
people who have access to that experience while in prison,
the better it will be for us all.

However, I still longed for more. I wanted to pursue other
courses, like pre-law and biology labs, that weren’t

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

35

Figure 12

Annual cost savings associated with postsecondary education programs by state
(in millions), at 50% take-up rate

State

Incarceration cost
savings associated with
postsecondary education
programs in prison

(Table continued)
State

Incarceration cost
savings associated with
postsecondary education
programs in prison

Alabama

$3.8

Montana

$1.2

Alaska

$2.4

Nebraska

$1.0

Arizona

$5.6

Nevada

$1.9

Arkansas

$4.1

New Hampshire

$0.9

California

$66.6

New Jersey

$10.2

Colorado

$7.0

New Mexico

$2.0

Connecticut

$7.2

New York

$37.8

Delaware

$3.1

North Carolina

$8.0

Florida

$12.9

North Dakota

Georgia

$3.5

Ohio

$11.8

Hawaii

$0.8

Oklahoma

$2.4

Idaho

$1.9

Oregon

Illinois

$17.3

Pennsylvania

$17.6

Indiana

$1.4

Rhode Island

$0.7

Iowa

$4.7

South Carolina

$1.3

Kansas

$3.0

South Dakota

$1.7

Kentucky

$3.9

Tennessee

Louisiana

$4.6

Texas

$38.1

Maine

$0.4

Utah

$1.1

Maryland

$7.6

Vermont

$1.8

Massachusetts

$1.8

Virginia

$3.6

n/a

n/a

$5.9

Michigan

$10.7

Washington

$18.6

Minnesota

$5.7

West Virginia

$0.8

Mississippi

$3.9

Wisconsin

$5.2

Missouri

$8.0

Wyoming

$0.3

Average
Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

36

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

$7.6 million

Conclusion and
recommendation

P

olicymakers and politicians frequently refer to education as “the great
equalizer.”67 While education alone does not guarantee economic
prosperity, people with higher levels of education tend to fare better
in the labor market. The unemployment rate is generally much lower for
workers with a college degree than those with a high school diploma.68
Moreover, wages tend to be higher for workers with higher levels of
education.69 These trends can be seen across all racial and ethnic groups,
age categories, genders, and regions. The economic returns from education
apply to formerly incarcerated people as well.

Federal policymakers should right a
past wrong by restoring eligibility
for Pell Grants to all qualified
incarcerated people.
While it is just one component of a policy framework to improve
people’s chances post-release, restoring Pell Grant access to people in
prison and rebuilding and expanding postsecondary education programs
in prisons would yield far-reaching economic benefits. Formerly
incarcerated people who re-enter the labor market with greater levels of
education are more likely to find employment and less likely to return
to prison, potentially improving social and economic outcomes for their
communities, families, and themselves while leading to significant savings
to states.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

37

Despite the significant benefits that individuals, businesses, and states
stand to gain from restoring incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants,
federal education funding policy has not undergone meaningful changes
since the Second Chance Pell pilot program. The time is ripe for such a
change. In recent years, state legislatures have made a concerted effort to
reverse the longstanding punitively focused approach to criminal justice.
Policymakers, motivated in part by research, have recognized that many
laws passed in the 1990s and early 2000s have had devastating human and
economic consequences and were ineffective at reducing crime.
Between 2013 and 2015, states across the country have generated 286
bills, executive orders, and ballot initiatives relating to criminal justice
reform.70 A notable exception to this reformist trend has been many
policymakers’ failure to recognize that the Pell Grants ban is a flawed
criminal justice policy. Federal policymakers should right a past wrong
by restoring eligibility for Pell Grants to all qualified incarcerated people,
thus making the projections in this report—of improved lives, a stronger
workforce, and state fiscal savings—a reality.

38

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Appendix A

Figure 13

Estimated Pell-eligible population by state, excluding people who are expected to be
released within one year
(Table continued)
State

Potentially Pelleligible in 2016

State

Potentially Pelleligible in 2016

Alabama

6,447

Montana

1,128

Alaska

1,630

Nebraska

1,397

Arizona

12,185

Nevada

3,007

Arkansas

4,319

California

34,613

New Jersey

6,175

Colorado

2,301

New Mexico

1,808

Connecticut

4,838

New York

Delaware
Florida

1,671
25,995

New Hampshire

North Carolina
North Dakota

710

13,798
6,143
459

Georgia

6,510

Ohio

Hawaii

1,747

Oklahoma

Idaho

833

Illinois

11,298

Pennsylvania

12,249

Indiana

2,770

Rhode Island

775

Iowa

4,011

South Carolina

2,858

South Dakota

1,632

Tennessee

8,639

Kansas

2,324

Oregon

12,363
8,211
3,887

Kentucky

7,821

Louisiana

9,859

Texas

64,702

809

Utah

1,236

Maine
Maryland

5,779

Vermont

486

Massachusetts

1,287

Virginia

9,272

Michigan

10,017

Washington

4,989

Minnesota

2,710

West Virginia

1,768

Mississippi

5,658

Wisconsin

7,470

Missouri

8,403

Wyoming

543

Total

351,545

Source: Authors' analysis. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

39

Figure 14

Impact of postsecondary education in prison programs on
earnings and employment of formerly incarcerated workers
during the calendar year of their release
Average percentage point change in employment rate of all formerly
incarcerated workers if...

25% of Pell-eligible

population participated in
postsecondary education

50% of Pell-eligible
population participated in
postsecondary education

75% of Pell-eligible

Men

0.5 (0.1–0.9)

1.0 (0.3–1.8)

1.6 (0.4–2.8)

Women

0.5 (0.1–0.9)

1.0 (0.2–1.8)

1.5 (0.4–2.6)

population participated in
postsecondary education

Total increase in combined earnings of all formerly incarcerated workers if…

All workers

25% of Pell-eligible

population participated in
postsecondary education

50% of Pell-eligible
population participated in
postsecondary education

75% of Pell-eligible

$22.7 million
($5.6M–$39.9M)

$45.3 million
($11.1M–$79.8M)

$68.0 million
($16.7M–$119.7M)

population participated in
postsecondary education

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: The odds of securing employment are 22% higher for vocational program participants compared to
nonparticipants; an odds ratio of 1.22 (Bozick et al., 2018). The 95 percent confidence interval for this odds ratio
is 1.05–1.42. Ranges in parentheses are based on this confidence interval.

40

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 15

Aggregate impact of postsecondary education programs in prison on earnings and employment of
all formerly incarcerated workers during their year of release, by state, at 25% take-up rate

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

(Table
continued)

Men

Women

Total

Montana

0.5

n/a

67,230

186,735

Nebraska

0.5

n/a

96,011

0.6

591,356

Nevada

0.5

0.5

324,729

0.5

0.5

441,495

New Hampshire

0.5

n/a

57,081

California

0.5

0.4

1,103,342

New Jersey

0.5

0.5

325,195

Colorado

0.5

0.5

530,304

New Mexico

1.1

1.1

135,127

Connecticut

0.6

0.6

198,440

New York

0.6

0.6

841,031

Delaware

0.5

0.5

108,578

North Carolina

0.4

0.4

532,908

Florida

0.5

0.5

1,207,537

North Dakota

n/a

n/a

n/a

Georgia

0.3

0.3

371,348

Ohio

0.5

0.5

624,711

Hawaii

0.5

0.5

91,676

Oklahoma

0.5

0.5

489,619

Idaho

0.5

0.5

200,982

Oregon

n/a

n/a

n/a

Illinois

0.5

0.5

1,071,987

Pennsylvania

0.5

0.5

772,789

Indiana

0.2

0.2

224,112

Rhode Island

0.5

n/a

50,216

Iowa

0.8

0.8

360,938

South Carolina

0.3

0.3

118,172

Kansas

0.5

0.5

289,040

South Dakota

0.6

n/a

203,293

Kentucky

0.5

0.5

545,714

Tennessee

0.5

0.5

383,251

Louisiana

0.5

0.5

865,569

Texas

0.7

0.7

4,627,025

Maine

0.6

0.6

30,891

Utah

0.5

0.5

133,973

Maryland

0.5

0.5

302,529

Vermont

n/a

n/a

n/a

Massachusetts

0.3

0.3

62,601

Virginia

0.5

0.5

342,233

Michigan

0.5

0.5

403,904

Washington

0.6

0.6

1,250,153

Minnesota

0.6

0.6

409,622

West Virginia

0.4

0.4

118,175

Mississippi

0.5

0.5

231,863

Wisconsin

0.6

0.6

244,724

Missouri

0.5

0.5

544,628

Wyoming

0.1

0.1

11,785

State

Men

Women

Total

Alabama

0.5

0.5

545,670

Alaska

0.7

0.6

Arizona

0.6

Arkansas

State

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: Estimates use an employment effects odds ratio of 1.22. Employment rates were not available for some states, and therefore authors were not able to generate
estimates for every state.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

41

Figure 16

Aggregate impact of postsecondary education programs in prison on earnings and employment of
all formerly incarcerated workers during their year of release, by state, at 50% take-up rate

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

(Table
continued)

Men

Women

Total

Montana

1.0

n/a

134,460

373,470

Nebraska

1.0

n/a

192,022

1.2

1,182,711

Nevada

1.1

1.0

649,457

1.1

1.0

882,989

New Hampshire

1.0

n/a

114,162

California

1.0

0.9

2,206,684

New Jersey

1.1

1.0

650,390

Colorado

1.0

0.9

1,060,608

New Mexico

2.2

2.2

270,254

Connecticut

1.2

1.2

396,880

New York

1.2

1.2

1,682,061

Delaware

1.0

1.0

217,156

North Carolina

0.8

0.8

1,065,816

Florida

1.1

1.0

2,415,074

North Dakota

n/a

n/a

n/a

Georgia

0.7

0.6

742,695

Ohio

1.0

1.0

1,249,422

Hawaii

1.1

0.9

183,353

Oklahoma

1.1

0.9

979,238

Idaho

1.0

0.9

401,964

Oregon

n/a

n/a

n/a

Illinois

1.0

1.0

2,143,974

Pennsylvania

1.1

1.0

1,545,579

Indiana

0.4

0.4

448,224

Rhode Island

1.0

n/a

100,432

Iowa

1.6

1.6

721,875

South Carolina

0.5

0.5

236,344

Kansas

1.0

1.0

578,081

South Dakota

1.2

n/a

406,586

Kentucky

1.1

1.0

1,091,429

Tennessee

1.0

1.0

766,501

Louisiana

1.0

1.0

1,731,139

Texas

1.4

1.3

9,254,051

Maine

1.3

1.2

61,781

Utah

1.0

1.0

267,947

Maryland

1.0

1.0

605,059

Vermont

n/a

n/a

n/a

Massachusetts

0.6

0.6

125,203

Virginia

1.0

1.0

684,466

Michigan

1.0

1.0

807,808

Washington

1.2

1.1

2,500,306

Minnesota

1.3

1.3

819,243

West Virginia

0.8

0.8

236,349

Mississippi

0.9

0.9

463,725

Wisconsin

1.2

1.2

489,449

Missouri

1.0

1.0

1,089,255

Wyoming

0.2

0.2

23,570

State

Men

Women

Total

Alabama

1.1

0.9

1,091,341

Alaska

1.4

1.2

Arizona

1.2

Arkansas

State

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: Estimates use an employment effects odds ratio of 1.22. Employment rates were not available for some states, and therefore authors were not able to generate
estimates for every state.

42

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 17

Aggregate impact of postsecondary education programs in prison on earnings and employment of
all formerly incarcerated workers during their year of release, by state, at 75% take-up rate

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

(Table
continued)

Men

Women

Total

Montana

1.6

n/a

201,691

560,205

Nebraska

1.4

n/a

288,033

1.7

1,774,067

Nevada

1.6

1.5

974,186

1.6

1.6

1,324,484

New Hampshire

1.5

n/a

171,244

California

1.4

1.3

3,310,026

New Jersey

1.6

1.5

975,585

Colorado

1.6

1.4

1,590,913

New Mexico

3.3

3.2

405,382

Connecticut

1.8

1.8

595,320

New York

1.8

1.8

2,523,092

Delaware

1.6

1.5

325,734

North Carolina

1.2

1.2

1,598,724

Florida

1.6

1.5

3,622,610

n/a

n/a

n/a

Georgia

1.0

0.9

1,114,043

Ohio

1.5

1.5

1,874,134

Hawaii

1.6

1.4

275,029

Oklahoma

1.6

1.4

1,468,857

Idaho

1.4

1.4

602,946

Oregon

n/a

n/a

n/a

Illinois

1.6

1.6

3,215,961

Pennsylvania

1.6

1.5

2,318,368

Indiana

0.6

0.5

672,336

Rhode Island

1.6

n/a

150,647

Iowa

2.4

2.4

1,082,813

South Carolina

0.8

0.8

354,516

Kansas

1.5

1.5

867,121

South Dakota

1.8

n/a

609,879

Kentucky

1.6

1.5

1,637,143

Tennessee

1.5

1.5

1,149,752

Louisiana

1.5

1.5

2,596,708

Texas

2.1

2.0

13,881,076

Maine

1.9

1.8

92,672

Utah

1.5

1.4

401,920

Maryland

1.5

1.5

907,588

Vermont

n/a

n/a

n/a

Massachusetts

0.9

0.8

187,804

Virginia

1.6

1.5

1,026,699

Michigan

1.5

1.5

1,211,711

Washington

1.8

1.7

3,750,459

Minnesota

1.9

1.9

1,228,865

West Virginia

1.2

1.1

354,524

Mississippi

1.4

1.4

695,588

Wisconsin

1.8

1.8

734,173

Missouri

1.6

1.5

1,633,883

Wyoming

0.3

0.3

35,354

State

Men

Women

Total

Alabama

1.6

1.4

1,637,011

Alaska

2.1

1.9

Arizona

1.8

Arkansas

State

Increase in
combined
annual earnings
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers during
year of release

Percentage
point increase in
employment rate
of all formerly
incarcerated
workers

North Dakota

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: Estimates use an employment effects odds ratio of 1.22. Employment rates were not available for some states, and therefore we were not able to generate estimates
for every state.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

43

Figure 18

Impact of postsecondary education programs on the cost of
state prisons
Combined decrease in states' annual expenditures on incarceration if...

25% of Pell-eligible

50% of Pell-eligible

75% of Pell-eligible

$182.9 million
($132.8M–$234.3M)

$365.8 million
($265.7M–$468.4M)

$548.7 million
($398.5M–$702.6M)

population participated in
postsecondary education

population participated in
postsecondary education

population participated in
postsecondary education

Source: Authors' analysis. See Methodology section in Appendix B.
Note: The odds of recidivating is 48% lower for postsecondary education program participants compared to
nonparticipants, an odds ratio of 0.52. (Bozick et al., 2018). The 95% confidence interval for this odds ratio is
0.42 to 0.63. The ranges in parentheses are based on this confidence interval.

44

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Figure 19

Incarceration cost savings associated with postsecondary education programs in prison

(Table
continued)
25% takeup rate

50% takeup rate

75% takeup rate

Montana

$590,805

$1,181,611

$1,772,416

Nebraska

$512,557

$1,025,113

$1,537,670

$8,466,109

Nevada

$967,815

$1,935,631

$2,903,446

$4,067,318

$6,100,977

New Hampshire

$436,963

$873,927

$1,310,890

$33,278,302

$66,556,604

$99,834,906

New Jersey

$5,110,722

$10,221,444

$15,332,167

Colorado

$3,483,141

$6,966,282

$10,449,423

New Mexico

$982,987

$1,965,975

$2,948,962

Connecticut

$3,585,115

$7,170,230

$10,755,346

New York

$18,903,545

$37,807,090

$56,710,635

Delaware

$1,557,059

$3,114,118

$4,671,177

$3,997,068

$7,994,136

$11,991,204

Florida

$6,439,978

$12,879,957

$19,319,935

North Dakota

n/a

n/a

n/a

Georgia

$1,751,815

$3,503,630

$5,255,445

Ohio

$5,884,400

$11,768,800

$17,653,200

Hawaii

$416,346

$832,692

$1,249,038

Oklahoma

$1,217,355

$2,434,710

$3,652,064

Idaho

$954,570

$1,909,140

$2,863,709

Oregon

n/a

n/a

n/a

Illinois

$8,664,559

$17,329,118

$25,993,678

Pennsylvania

$8,778,704

$17,557,409

$26,336,113

$697,088

$1,394,176

$2,091,264

Rhode Island

$366,123

$732,247

$1,098,370

$2,362,535

$4,725,069

$7,087,604

South Carolina

$669,291

$1,338,582

$2,007,873

Kansas

$1,513,687

$3,027,374

$4,541,060

South Dakota

$848,659

$1,697,318

$2,545,977

Kentucky

$1,940,125

$3,880,250

$5,820,375

Tennessee

$2,937,290

$5,874,580

$8,811,870

Louisiana

$2,282,732

$4,565,464

$6,848,196

Texas

$19,070,471

$38,140,942

$57,211,413

$176,997

$353,993

$530,990

Utah

$536,031

$1,072,061

$1,608,092

$3,813,723

$7,627,447

$11,441,170

Vermont

$902,729

$1,805,458

$2,708,188

$901,479

$1,802,958

$2,704,437

Virginia

$1,802,787

$3,605,574

$5,408,361

Michigan

$5,362,675

$10,725,350

$16,088,025

Washington

$9,301,575

$18,603,150

$27,904,724

Minnesota

$2,828,581

$5,657,161

$8,485,742

West Virginia

$420,849

$841,699

$1,262,548

Mississippi

$1,957,516

$3,915,032

$5,872,549

Wisconsin

$2,618,597

$5,237,195

$7,855,792

$3,998,517

$7,997,033

$11,995,550

Wyoming

$173,332

$346,664

$519,997

$3,810,609

$7,621,218

$11,431,827

25% takeup rate

50% takeup rate

75% takeup rate

$1,876,629

$3,753,258

$5,629,886

$1,179,704

$2,359,408

$3,539,112

Arizona

$2,822,036

$5,644,072

Arkansas

$2,033,659

California

State
Alabama
Alaska

Indiana
Iowa

Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts

Missouri

State

North Carolina

Average

Source: Authors' calculations. See Methodology section in Appendix B.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

45

Appendix B

Methodology
Below is a detailed discussion of the methodologies
used to estimate the economic and fiscal benefits of
restoring incarcerated people’s access to Pell Grants.
The report focuses on the state prison population
because the vast majority of incarcerated people are in
state prisons; it thus estimates the fiscal and economic
benefits of restoring Pell Grants to people in prison
by state. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,
about 95 percent of people in a state prison return to a
community within that state when released.71 Because
it is difficult to predict the destination states of people
released from federal facilities, GCPI did not estimate
the fiscal savings or employment impacts of these
incarcerated people gaining access to Pell Grants. As
a result, the overall estimates are conservative: they
do not reflect further returns from greater access to
postsecondary education in nonstate prisons. As noted
in the body of the report, the vast majority (87 percent)
of people in prison in the United States are incarcerated
in state facilities rather than federal facilities.72

Defining the Pell-eligible and
programmatic universes
Pell-eligible population
To identify the estimated number of people in prison
who would be eligible for Pell Grants by state (see
Figure 6 on page 15), GCPI began with the total
number of people in state prison facilities in 2016, as
reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Data from
2016 are the latest available.

46

The authors defined “Pell-eligible” as anyone who
was 18–54, did not have a life sentence, and whose
highest level of education was a high school diploma or
GED. While income is a key determining factor of Pell
eligibility for nonincarcerated people, given the nature
of incarceration and specifically the inability to earn
even the minimum wage, the authors assumed that all
incarcerated students meet the income requirements
for a Pell Grant.73 Using the National Corrections
Reporting Program (NCRP), they identified what share
of the state prison population met these parameters. As
the Bureau of Justice Statistics describes it, the NCRP
“collects offender-level administrative data annually on
prison admissions and releases, and year-end custody
populations.” All but a few states participate in this
data collection.
For each state available, they identified what share
of the year-end custody populations in 2016 were
18–54 and did not have a life sentence. In 1992, Pell
eligibility was restricted to exclude individuals who
were serving a life sentence without parole and those
with a death penalty. Unfortunately, the NCRP data
groups the following sentences into a single category:
life, life without parole, life plus additional years, and
death. As a result, the authors were not able to identify,
by state, the share of incarcerated people who have,
specifically, a life sentence without parole or death
penalty. They excluded this entire NCRP category when
estimating the Pell-eligible population, leading to an
underestimate of the population.
To generate estimates of incarcerated people’s
educational attainment and participation in educational
programs, the authors used an educational attainment

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

variable included in the NCRP. However, for some
states, the level of educational attainment is unknown
for a large portion of observations (because some
observations have missing values for educational
attainment in the NCRP data). To strike a balance
between state-specific estimates and realistic estimates
for each state, the authors used the state-specific
estimates as reported by NCRP if 90 percent of
observations had a known education level; that is,
less than 10 percent of observations had a missing
value for the educational attainment variable. Across
the 19 states in which 90 percent of 2016 NCRP
observations had a reported educational attainment,
42.6 percent of people who are 18–54 and do not have
a life or death sentence had a high school degree or
GED. The researchers used this share (42.6 percent)
for the remaining states, with the exception of Alaska,
Colorado, Maine, and Washington, whose share of
people 18–54 and without a life sentence who have a
high school degree/GED was higher than 46.2 percent.
For states that fell into this category, the authors used
the state’s share of people 18–54 and without a life
sentence who have a high school degree/GED.
In short, for each state, to identify the number
people who likely would be Pell-eligible, the authors
multiplied the number of incarcerated people in 2016
(as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) by the
share of people in prison who were 18–54, did not have
a life sentence, and had a high school degree or GED in
2016 (as reported by NCRP).
It is worth noting that this approach underestimates
the Pell-eligible population, given that there are people
who have taken some college courses but have not
yet completed a degree. The 2004 Survey of Inmates
in State and Federal Correctional Facilities (SISFCF)
indicates that about 9 percent of men and 13 percent
of women have taken some college courses but not yet
secured a four-year degree.74 Unfortunately, NCRP’s
educational attainment variable is not this detailed
and, therefore, the authors were not able to identify by
state what share of the incarcerated people fall into
this category.

As discussed in the body of the report, the authors
recognize that to some practitioners in the field the
estimated size of the Pell-eligible population may seem
high given that incarcerated students may also need
to meet certain criteria established by correctional
facilities. In an attempt to identify the population
that is both Pell-eligible and likely allowed to enroll
in programs, they generated additional estimates (see
Figure 13 on page 39) that exclude people who are
expected to be released in less than one year and or
who have a record of misconduct while incarcerated.
For each state, they identified the share of people 18–54
who do not have a life without parole sentence who
are not expected to return home within one year. They
used the NCRP data to identify these shares by state.
Across states for which data are available, this share
averaged 73.1 percent. The authors used this average for
states that did not have data.

Participation rates
As discussed in the body of this report, the authors
use three take-up rates to generate a range for the
number of incarcerated people who would participate
in postsecondary education programs. The midlevel estimate they used throughout the body of the
report is 50 percent because, according to an analysis
of the 2004 SISFCF data, 47 percent of men who
were academically prepared to take a GED course
participated in one. The authors believe it is reasonable
for correctional facilities to aim for and achieve
similar levels of participation in their postsecondary
education programs as they currently achieve in
secondary programs. The authors recognize that
state requirements to provide incarcerated people
with GED/high school programs may partially drive
the participation rate. The higher take-up rate of 75
percent is similar to the share of nonincarcerated
people nationwide who enroll in college for the fall
semester following their high school graduation. As
a lower-bound estimate, the authors use a 25 percent
take-up rate. This rate takes into consideration that

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

47

some correctional facilities may not have adequate
infrastructure for postsecondary classrooms
immediately after fully restoring Pell Grants for
incarcerated students.

Quantified benefits to formerly
incarcerated students
GCPI researchers estimated the employment and wage
impacts of postsecondary education (PSE) in prison
programs on people returning home after release.

PSE programs and employment
outcomes
To quantify the likely employment impact of restoring
incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants as discussed
in the report, the authors drew upon the estimated
number of incarcerated people projected to be eligible
for Pell Grants and the three proposed take-up rates
discussed above and then identified
1.	 current employment rates of formerly
incarcerated workers;
2.	 likely employment rates for formerly
incarcerated people; and
3.	 overall employment rates for formerly
incarcerated workers (if a portion of this
population participated in PSE programs).
1) Employment of formerly incarcerated workers
To model the impact of postsecondary education in
prison programs on the earnings and employment of
formerly incarcerated workers, the authors needed
to identify baseline employment rates and earnings.
In a 2018 report, Adam Looney and Nicholas Turner
identify the employment rates and average annual
earning of formerly incarcerated workers by years
since release based on an analysis of IRS data.75 This
is the first analysis of its kind. The researchers found
that across the United States roughly half of formerly

48

incarcerated people found formal work within the first
full year of returning home.
Looney and Turner’s state-level estimates during the
first year of release form the baseline employment rates
and typical earnings of formerly incarcerated workers.
(Looney and Turner restricted their analysis to people
ages 18 to 64.) Because of NCRP data constraints, the
authors were not able to identify the 55–to–64-year-old
population by state. For this reason, this study focuses
on people ages 18 to 54. Applying Looney and Turner’s
18–64 employment rates to formerly incarcerated
workers ages 18 to 54 likely underestimates
employment rates for this group (and consequently
the estimated benefits), given that the employment-topopulation ratio among older workers is typically lower
than for younger workers.76
2) Modeled employment rates of formerly
incarcerated workers who participate in
postsecondary education programs
For each state, the authors generated an employment
rate for people who participate in PSE programs.
They constructed these rates by applying RAND’s
employment odds ratio to Looney and Turner’s baseline
employment rates. Overall, RAND found that the odds
of employment were 12 percent higher for those who
participated in some type of education or training
program compared to those who didn’t participate.
The RAND study provided odds ratios for academic
and vocational programs. The odds ratio for academic
programs (adult basic education, high school/GED, and
postsecondary combined) was estimated to be 1.10.
The odds ratio for vocational programs was estimated
to be 1.22. Ideally, the authors would be able to use an
odds ratio specifically for postsecondary education
programs. Given that this is unavailable, they instead
used the odds ratio of 1.22. Their understanding is that
vocational education is closer, in terms of education
type, to postsecondary education than the category
of all academic programs combined. In other words,
because programs that are not at a college level,
such as high school or GED, are likely to reduce the

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

overall academic programs odds ratio (1.10), it is not a
reasonable odds ratio for postsecondary education.77
Using the odds ratio for vocational programs (1.22) may
underestimate the employment and earnings impact
of restoring Pell Grants to incarcerated students to the
extent that participation in postsecondary education
programs is associated with higher employment rates
than participation in vocational programs. Relatedly,
and as context, RAND estimates that the impact of
vocational programs on recidivism is not as large
as that of postsecondary education programs. The
95 percent confidence interval for the odds ratio for
vocational programs is 1.05 to 1.42.
3) Overall employment rates of all formerly
incarcerated workers when incarcerated people
have access to Pell Grants
To estimate likely aggregate employment impacts,
the authors modeled an overall employment rate for
the recently released population. Given that the takeup rate likely will vary across states and depends on
a multitude of factors, the researchers use a low (25
percent), middle (50 percent), and high (75 percent)
take-up rate; consequently, there are a range of
estimates.
For each state, the authors identify what share of
all people released would have participated in a PSE
program with low, medium, and high participation
rates among the Pell-eligible population. For example,
in Wisconsin, if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible
population participated in a PSE program, that would
mean that roughly 26 percent of all 18- to 54-yearolds who do not have a life sentence (regardless of
education level) would be engaged in postsecondary
education training. The assumption is that the same
share of people ages 18 to 54 released from prison
would have participated in a program. Data from the
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides the number
of people released from prison by state in 2016; NCRP
release data from 2016 forms the basis for the share of
people released who were 18–54, by sex.

Using the current employment rate of formerly
incarcerated workers as a baseline, the modeled
employment rates of workers who participated in a
postsecondary education program while in prison,
and the estimated share of all people released who
would have participated in a postsecondary education
program, the authors estimate the overall employment
rate among all people (18–54) released for each of the
three take-up rates.

Earnings impact of postsecondary
education programs
As discussed in the report above, modeled changes in
earnings do not estimate the impact of incarcerated
people participating in postsecondary education
programs on individual earnings. Rather, they identify
what the increase in employment rates among the
formerly incarcerated population would mean in terms
of combined total earnings. In other words, assuming
that the typical earnings of the formerly incarcerated
population remain the same, the report identifies by
how much total earnings across this population would
increase if more people found formal employment.
The earnings calculation draws upon the number
of people released from prison each year by state;
baseline employment rates of formerly incarcerated
workers during their first year of release; and the
overall employment rate of formerly incarcerated
workers if they were eligible for Pell Grants while in
prison described in the previous section on estimated
employment outcomes, as well as mean earnings of
formerly incarcerated workers during their first year of
release. The authors based mean earnings on Looney
and Turner’s 2018 report, which found that, among the
formerly incarcerated people who found formal work
within the first full year of returning home, the average
annual earnings reported during that year were about
$13,900. The authors also used the report’s state-level
estimates of typical earnings of formerly incarcerated
workers during the first year of release.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

49

Quantified benefits to states
In addition to estimating the employment and wage
impact of postsecondary education programs, the
authors estimated how much states stand to save
as a result of postsecondary education programs
lowering recidivism rates. They estimated that states’
correctional costs would decrease by, on average, $7.6
million for each year in which people released from
prison had access to Pell Grants while incarcerated.
Across all states, prison costs would decline by $365.8
million each year if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible
population participated in PSE programs.
To quantify these impacts, the authors first
identified the following:
1.	 current recidivism rates by state;
2.	 likely recidivism rates of people who participate
in postsecondary education programs;
3.	 overall recidivism rates if people released from
prison had access to Pell Grants while they were
incarcerated;
4.	 per-person marginal cost of correctional
facilities by state; and
5.	 average length of incarceration/sentence length
by state.
1) Current recidivism rates
To estimate the impact participation in postsecondary
education programs has on recidivism rates, the
authors first identified baseline recidivism rates for
each state. In 2011, the Pew Charitable Trusts published
the results from a survey to identify state-level
recidivism rates. Forty-one states participated in the
survey. Pew defined the recidivism rate as the share
of people released from prison who were rearrested,
reconvicted, or returned to incarceration within three
years. The recidivism rates corresponded to those in the
period from 2004 to 2007. To the authors’ knowledge,
these are the only state-level estimates of recidivism
rates. (The authors would have preferred to use
recidivism rates from a more recent period. However,
50

given that these data are not available, they used Pew’s
estimates.) For the nine states that did not participate
in Pew’s survey, the authors applied the average
recidivism rate from the 41 participating states.
2) Recidivism rate of postsecondary education
in prison participants
For each state, the authors generated a recidivism rate
for people who participated in prison postsecondary
education programs. They construct these rates by
applying RAND’s estimated recidivism odds ratio to
Pew’s baseline recidivism rates. Overall, RAND found
that the odds of recidivating are 32 percent lower for
people who participated in some type of education
or training program compared to those who did not
participate in a program. The RAND study provided
odds ratios for various types of programs. The odds
ratio for PSE programs was 0.52. This study used this
odds ratio to estimate the recidivism rates of formerly
incarcerated people who participated in prison
postsecondary education programs. The 95 percent
confidence interval for this odds ratio is 0.42 to 0.63.
3) Overall recidivism rates if people released
from prison had access to Pell Grants while they
were incarcerated
To estimate likely aggregate recidivism impacts of
postsecondary education in prison programs, the
authors modeled an overall recidivism rate for the
recently released population assuming that 25 percent
(and 50 percent and 75 percent) of the Pell-eligible
population participated in PSE programs while
incarcerated. Given that the take-up rate will likely
vary across states and depends on a multitude of
factors, they use a low (25 percent), middle (50 percent),
and high (75 percent) take-up rate; consequently, they
have a range of estimates.
For each state, the authors identified what share
of all people released would have participated in a
postsecondary education program if 25 percent (and 50
percent and 75 percent) of the Pell-eligible population
participated in a program. For example, in Wisconsin,

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

if 50 percent of the Pell-eligible population participated
in a postsecondary education program, that would
mean that roughly 26 percent of all 18–to–54-yearolds who do not have a life sentence (regardless of
education level) would be engaged in postsecondary
education training. The study assumes that the same
share of people ages 18 to 54 released from prison
would have participated in a program. Given the age
profile of the population released from incarceration
in Wisconsin, the authors estimated that roughly 23
percent of all people released in Wisconsin would have
participated in a postsecondary education program.
Data from BJS formed the basis for the number of
people released from prison by state in 2016; NCRP
release data from 2016 identified the share of people
released who were 18–54.
Using the baseline recidivism rate of formerly
incarcerated workers, the modeled recidivism rates of
workers who participated in a postsecondary education
program while in prison, and the share of all people
released who participated in a postsecondary education
program, the authors estimated the overall recidivism
rate among all people released for each of the three
take-up rates.

states.78 Vera calculated the average cost per person
by taking total state spending on prison and dividing
it by the average daily prison population. Across the
45 states that provided Vera with data, the average
per-person cost was $33,274. The authors used this
average for the five states that did not provide data
on spending. For all states, the authors, drawing on a
Vera estimate, assumed that the marginal cost was 14
percent of the average per-person cost.
5) Average length of incarceration/sentence
length by state
Calculating cost savings associated with a reduction
in recidivism rates required identifying the average
sentence or incarceration length. To identify these
averages, the authors used the 2014 state-level
estimates as presented in a report by the Urban
Institute.79 They selected these data over other sources,
such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, in part because
the report gave the most recent state-level estimates
available. The Urban Institute provides averages for
time served for 43 states; the authors used the average
across the 43 states for the seven states that did not
have estimates.

4) Per-person cost of correctional facilities
In 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report
that identified the cost of incarceration by state for 45

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

51

Endnotes
1	

See Figure 4 on page 12 for educational attainment of incarcerated
people.

2	

Vera Institute of Justice, Expanding Access to Postsecondary
Education in Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017),
https://perma.cc/SVH8-U4HZ.

3	

E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of
Justice Statistics, 2018), https://perma.cc/4TLH-VBBY. This report
does not include data for the District of Columbia. BJS notes in its
report that, “The District of Columbia has not operated a prison
system since year-end 2001.”

4	

Given that employment rates among formerly incarcerated
people increase slightly after the first year of release, the authors
would expect these cumulative earnings to similarly increase in
subsequent years. For example, nationally, 48 percent of formerly
incarcerated people are employed during their first year after
release. By the fourth year this share rises to 51 percent. See Adam
Looney and Nicholas Turner, Work and Opportunity Before and
After Incarceration (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2018),
https://perma.cc/HA57-KTNN.

5	

Authors’ analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment
Projections 2016–2026,” updated January 30, 2018, https://perma.
cc/ZB6U-9ZWN.

increased by about 52 percent between 1970 and 2010. See U.S.
Census Bureau, Decennial Census of Population and Housing,
https://perma.cc/LU5V-Z32Z.
14	 Carson, 2018.
15	 U.S. Department of Education Press Office, “12,000 Incarcerated
Students to Enroll in Postsecondary Educational and Training
Programs Through Department’s New Second Chance Pell Pilot
Program,” press release, June 24, 2016, https://perma.cc/BU4RUQ3D.
16	 Ibid.
17	 David D. Haynes, “Throw the Books at Them: How More Training for
Wisconsin’s Prisoners Could Help Companies,” Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel, July 27, 2018, https://perma.cc/MH86-MPT4.
18	 “Per year” estimates refer to savings to state for each year people
released from prison had access to Pell Grants while they were
incarcerated.
19	 These estimates indicate that total Pell Grant costs would not rise
more than a few percentage points each year.
20	 U.S. Department of Education, “Federal Pell Grant Program Annual
Data Reports,” https://perma.cc/E3B8-JPXC.

6	

Carson, 2018.

21	 Carson, 2018.

7	

Examples of postsecondary certificates and degrees include
career or technical certificates from accredited colleges, associate
degrees, and bachelor’s degree.

8	

Looney and Turner, 2018.

22	 U.S. Department of Education, “Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC
Survey of Incarcerated Adults: Their Skills, Work Experience,
Education, and Training,” November 2016, https://perma.cc/9LXVHMR9.

9	

Charmaine Mercer, Federal Pell Grants for Prisoners (Washington,
DC: Congressional Research Services, 2004), https://perma.
cc/6SNY-9BFP.

10	 Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English, The Second Chance Pell
Pilot Program: A Historical Overview (Washington, DC: American
Enterprise Institute, 2017), http://www.aei.org/publication/thesecond-chance-pell-pilot-program-a-historical-overview/.
11	

Ibid.

12	 Christopher Stafford, “Finding Work: How to Approach the
Intersection of Prisoner Reentry, Employment, and Recidivism,”
Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy 13, no. 2 (2006), 261281.
13	 Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, and Fred Patrick, Making the
Grade: Developing Quality Postsecondary Education Programs in
Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016), https://perma.
cc/3JVQ-LGFG. As a point of comparison, the U.S. population

52

23	 Leah Sakala, Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010
Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity
(Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014), https://perma.
cc/HL7M-GJ44. See also Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass
Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S.
Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69, no. 2 (2004), 151169, https://perma.cc/VQ4M-W6E9.
24	 Ashley Nellis, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in
State Prisons (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2016), https://
perma.cc/L22U-M23X.
25	 Elizabeth Hinton, LeShae Henderson, and Cindy Reed, An Unjust
Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal
Justice System (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://
perma.cc/EGL6-KXPV.
26	 Ibid.
27	 Carson, 2018.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

28	 Ibid.

45	 Grant Duwe and Valerie Clark, “The Effect of Prison-Based
Educational Programing on Recidivism and Employment,” Prison
Journal 94, no. 4 (2014), 454-478, https://perma.cc/Y6TJ-796M.

29	 Ibid.
30	 U.S. Department of Education, 2016.
31	 Ibid.
32	 Ibid.
33	 U.S. Department of Education, “Federal Pell Grant Program Annual
Data Reports,” https://perma.cc/54HS-EKGB.
34	 Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering
the Pre-Incarceration Income of the Imprisoned (Northampton, MA:
Prison Policy Initiative, 2015), 9, https://perma.cc/2KTQ-GWCM.
35	 Looney and Turner, 2018.
36	 In practice, fewer incarcerated students may ultimately participate
in postsecondary education programs because of criteria such
as misconduct or time until release established by correctional
facilities. It is important to note that these criteria do not make
students ineligible for Pell Grants but rather create barriers
students must overcome to reap the benefit of their eligibility.
37	 Steven Raphael, “Incarceration and Prisoner Reentry in the United
States,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science 635 (2011), 192-215, https://www.jstor.org/stable/29779418.
38	 Steven Raphael, “The Employment Prospects of Ex-Offenders,”
Focus 25, no. 2 (2007–2008), 21-26, https://perma.cc/XJE5-N3E8.
39	 Looney and Turner, 2018.
40	 Ibid.

46	 Rosa Minhyo Cho and John H. Tyler, “Does Prison-Based Adult
Basic Education Improve Post-release Outcomes for Male Prisoners
in Florida?” Crime & Delinquency 59, no. 7 (2010), 975-1005,
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4288462/. Note:
earnings effect was measured in terms of changes in pre-and postincarceration.
47	 Matthew R. Durose, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States
in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 (Washington, DC: Bureau of
Justice Statistics, 2014), https://perma.cc/75F2-54Q2.
48	 Ibid.
49	 Grant Duwe, The Use and Impact of Correctional Programming
for Inmates on Pre- and Post-Release Outcomes (Washington, DC:
National Institute of Justice, 2017), https://perma.cc/W2AT-SKUH.
50	 Ibid.
51	 Bozick, Steele, Davis, and Turner, 2018.
52	 Ibid.
53	 Ibid.
54	 Given that employment rates among formerly incarcerated people
increases slightly after the first year of release, we would expect
these cumulative earnings to similarly increase in subsequent
years. For example, nationally, 48 percent of formerly incarcerated
people are employed during their first year of returning home. By
Year Four this share rises to 51 percent. See Looney and Turner,
2018.

41	 Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s
Effect on Economic Mobility (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable
Trusts, September 28, 2010), https://perma.cc/N75T-XGRS.

55	 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Time Series LNU12300060, Current
Population Survey, https://perma.cc/58Y3-D5DX. Ibid.

42	 Ibid.

56	 Bozick, Steele, Davis, and Turner, 2018.

43	 Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders,
and Jeremy N.V. Miles, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional
Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to
Incarcerated Adults (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013),
https://perma.cc/CQ8N-DR7T; Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Lois
M. Davis, and Susan Turner, “Does Providing Inmates with Education
Improve Post-Release Outcomes? A Meta-Analysis of Correctional
Education Programs in the United States,” Journal of Experimental
Criminology 14, no. 3 (2018), 389-428, https://perma.cc/NKE4KDFK.

57	 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Time Series LNS12300061 (December
2009 to December 2018) and LNS12300062 (September 2011 to
December 2018), Current Population Survey.

44	 Ibid. Note: these results are not specific to students who completed
education in prison programs but rather participated in the
programs.

58	 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Time Series LNU12300060, Current
Population Survey, https://perma.cc/58Y3-D5DX. Ibid.
59	 See for example, Duwe and Clark, 2014.
60	 Chris Mai and Ram Subramanian, The Price of Prisons (New York:
Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), https://perma.cc/7ERJ-7HNU. In
contrast, states spend about $500 to $700 million per year on job
training, in 2003 dollars, according to the most recent available
estimate. Kelly S. Mikelson and Demetra Smith Nightingale,
“Estimating Public and Private Expenditures on Occupational
Training in the United States,” U.S. Department of Labor, 2004,
https://perma.cc/S57V-VZJS.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

53

61	 Raphael, 2011.

72	 Carson, 2018.

62	 Tracey Kyckelhahn, State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982 – 2010
(Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012), https://
perma.cc/M2DD-TYWN.

73	 Wendy Sawyer, “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in
Each State?” Prison Policy Initiative, April 10, 2017, https://perma.
cc/32NS-9HM9.

63	 Ibid.
64	 Mai and Subramanian, 2017.

74	 Authors’ calculations of the “Survey of Inmates in State and Federal
Correctional Facilities,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, https://
perma.cc/XJ65-YXMC.

65	 Ibid.

75	 Looney and Turner, 2018.

66	 Pew Center on States, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of
America’s Prisons,” (Washington, DC: Pew Center on States, 2011),
https://perma.cc/2J6R-JB34.

76	 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Time Series LNS12324230 and
LNS12300060, Population Survey.

67	 Cameron Brenchley, “In America, Education is Still the Great
Equalizer,” Home Room: The Official Blog of the U.S Department of
Education, December 12, 2011, https://perma.cc/P9PD-WBHU.

77	 As a point of comparison, one can consider the broader trends in
unemployment rates by educational attainment. See for example,
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Unemployment Rates and Earnings
by Educational Attainment, 2017,” March 2018, https://perma.cc/
ZB6U-9ZWN.

68	 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Unemployment Rates and Earnings
by Educational Attainment, 2017,” March 2018, https://perma.cc/
BWQ9-X9DP.
69	 Ibid.
70	 Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu, The
New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration (New York: Vera Institute of
Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/SJ5C-2YCQ.

78	 Mai and Subramanian, 2017.
79	 Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King,
and Serena Lei, A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences
of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: Urban
Institute, 2017), https://perma.cc/6CTL-HWXG.

71	 Timothy Hughes and Doris James Wilson, Reentry Trends in the
United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
2002), https://perma.cc/D2MW-EUJB.

54

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

Acknowledgments
The Vera Institute of Justice would like to thank Patrick Oakford, a
consultant for the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, who
was the principal author of this report. We also would like to thank
the following coauthors from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and
Inequality: Cara Brumfield, senior policy analyst; Casey Goldvale, policy
and research analyst; and Laura Tatum, director of jobs and education.
Co-executive director Indivar Dutta-Gupta provided significant reviews
and guidance. Summer Fellows Kaustubh Chahande and Cosette Hampton
provided invaluable research assistance.
We appreciate the generous assistance provided by the following
people, who shared their insights and advice and reviewed drafts of this
report: Chris Beasley, University of Washington Tacoma Post-Prison
Education Research Lab; Grant Duwe, academic adviser to the American
Enterprise Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and research director
for the Minnesota Department of Corrections; Tiffany Jones, director of
higher education policy, The Education Trust; Aaron Kinzel, lecturer in
criminology and criminal justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn;
David Russell, director of Next Gen Recruitment, EDAC Technologies; and
Donna Zuniga, dean of the Huntsville Center, Lee College.
We would like to thank the following people who shared their expertise
in college-in-prison programs with us during phone interviews: Jennifer
Anilowski, interim director of admissions, Asnuntuck Community College;
Mary Bidwell, interim dean of the advanced manufacturing technology
program, Asnuntuck Community College; and Aminah Elster, third-year
legal studies major at the University of California Berkeley.
In addition, we wish to thank numerous staff at Vera and collaborators
including Chris Henrichson, Ruth Delaney, and David Pitts for their
contributions to the content; Alice Chasan, Léon Digard, Cindy Reed, and
Ram Subramanian for their work on editing the report; Paragini Amin for
its design and layout; and Sarah Grey for proofreading.
The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this paper,
as well as for any errors that remain.

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

55

About Citations
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address this issue, the Vera Institute of Justice is experimenting with the
use of Perma.cc (https://perma.cc), a service that helps scholars, journals,
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Credits
© Vera Institute of Justice 2019. All rights reserved.
An electronic version of this report is posted on Vera’s website at www.vera.org/investing-infutures.
Cover image: BrianStauffer.com
Graphics: Paragini Amin
The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and
research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice, and works in
close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement it. Vera is currently pursuing
core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, and ensuring
that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. For more
information, visit www.vera.org.
For more information about this report, contact Margaret diZerega, project director, at
mdizerega@vera.org.

Suggested Citation
Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield, Casey Goldvale, Laura Tatum, Margaret diZerega, and Fred
Patrick. Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison.
New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019.

56

Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison

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