Throughout their lives, people who serve time in prison are held back from educational opportunities, making it nearly impossible to earn the credentials they need to succeed after release. Using data from the National Former Prisoner Survey, this report reveals that formerly incarcerated people are often relegated to the lowest rungs of the educational ladder; more than half hold only a high school diploma or GED, and a quarter hold no credential at all. While incarcerated, and even after release from prison, we find that people rarely get the chance to make up for the educational opportunities from which they’ve been excluded — opportunities that impact their chances of reentry success.
Education is especially critical for people seeking employment after release from prison. Building on our previous research, which revealed a staggering 27% unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people, we find that those with low levels of formal education face even higher unemployment rates. In particular, formerly incarcerated people without a high school credential report extreme unemployment rates, and the outlook is particularly bleak for people of color. These alarming results call for immediate transformations of our educational and criminal justice systems. To that end, we conclude with a series of fundamental policy recommendations necessary to reduce current inequalities faced by criminalized people across the United States.
Most broadly, we find that inequalities between the general public and formerly incarcerated people begin early and accumulate at each level of education:
Before going to prison, many formerly incarcerated people are subject to punitive practices in schools and neighborhoods that funnel them out of school and into juvenile and criminal justice system involvement;3 this process has been characterized as a “school-to-prison pipeline.” But the problem doesn’t end there. As our analysis shows, their educational exclusion persists during and after incarceration.
We find that a quarter of formerly incarcerated people do not have a basic high school diploma or GED. And at least an additional third (33%) obtain GEDs as their highest level of education in lieu of traditional diplomas.4 Together, these two groups make up the 58% of all formerly incarcerated people whose traditional high school educations were cut short.
Of course, an interruption in high school education does not necessarily lead to incarceration, and conversely, many incarcerated people have graduated from high school. But such a low rate of high school completion among formerly incarcerated people adds to the body of evidence that overly punitive disciplinary policies and practices contribute to the criminalization — and ultimately, incarceration — of large numbers of youth.5
Excluding youth from a traditional high school education denies them not just an important credential, but also qualitatively different educational experiences,6 valuable networking opportunities,7 and career guidance.8 To achieve social and economic success, people who are incarcerated must find ways to make up for these lost experiences in prison or upon reentry. Unfortunately, as we’ll discuss, the U.S. fails to provide effective remedies for people who have been pushed out of traditional schooling and into prisons and jails.
At the same time that criminalized youth are pushed out of traditional schooling, high school (and increasingly college) credentials are becoming essential for employment. The last time 25% of adults in the U.S. did not have a high school credential was 1986,9 when low-skill jobs were still widely available. Decades later, 25% of formerly incarcerated people still don’t have high school credentials, and low-skill jobs have largely disappeared.
It is nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated job seekers to compete in an economy that increasingly demands highly skilled, credentialed workers.
Our analysis finds wide variation in employment outcomes by educational attainment, underscoring the importance of education for people seeking work after release. Previously, we found that the overall unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people stands at a staggering 27% — higher than peak unemployment during the Great Depression.11 But unemployment among those without a high school credential is much worse, ranging from 25% among white men to 60% among Black women. These results indicate that the one-two punch of being criminalized and excluded from high school puts large numbers of people out of work.12
For those who enter prison without a high school diploma, GED programs are frequently offered to help bridge the educational gap. Accordingly, we find that compared to the general public, formerly incarcerated people are much more likely to attain the high school credential through GED programs. Only 7-10% of the general public with a high school credential achieved that credential via a GED.13 In contrast, we find that over 60% of formerly incarcerated people whose highest level of education is a high school credential have a GED certificate rather than a traditional high school diploma.
But although a GED can be an important corrective for those who have been pushed out of traditional high schools, there are clear income differences in the general public between those who get GEDs and those who get traditional diplomas.14 On average, people with high school diplomas earn 33% more than those with GEDs:
|Educational attainment||Average monthly income|
|High school diploma||$4,690|
In terms of employment outcomes, a GED is undoubtedly better than no high school credential at all, but this difference in earnings demonstrates that a GED and a diploma may not provide the same economic rewards.
Prior research has identified some important benefits of in-prison GED programs, including higher post-prison earnings and reduced recidivism.15 But our analysis shows that GEDs earned in prison may not lead to the same opportunities as GEDs earned outside of prison.
Our analysis allows us to distinguish between formerly incarcerated people who received GEDs in prison and those who received them on the outside. We found that of the 33% of all formerly incarcerated people (age 25+) who hold GEDs as their highest degrees, the vast majority (73%) received them in prison. In total, we find that almost 27% of formerly incarcerated people attained a GED while incarcerated.
While data retrieval limitations made it impossible to analyze economic outcomes related to where people received GEDs, we found that GEDs earned in prison rarely provide pathways to further educational achievement:
|Formerly incarceratedwith GED earned in prison (age 18+)||General publicwith GED (age 18+)|
|At least some college||9.6%||42.8%|
For formerly incarcerated people, a GED earned in prison is almost never a stepping-stone to higher education. Of all formerly incarcerated people with in-prison GEDs, less than 10% go on to take any college coursework, and less than 1% attain college degrees. In contrast, nearly half of GED holders in the general public go on to complete at least some college. These results point to a vast system of barriers to entry into higher education (as we discuss below), including in-prison GED programs that, without supplemental educational experiences, are insufficient to prepare students for further education.17
Unsurprisingly, we also find large educational inequalities between the general public and formerly incarcerated people at the top of the educational ladder: college. For example, among people 25 and older, 55.4% of the general public in 2008 had taken at least one college course, but only 23% of formerly incarcerated people had done so.18
When it comes to completing college, the gap widens further: 29% of the U.S. population in 2008, compared to less than 4% of formerly incarcerated people, held a college degree.19 The difference is even more pronounced among those who hold a high school diploma or GED: While those in the general public have a 1 in 3 chance of attaining a college degree, a formerly incarcerated person’s chances are less than 1 in 20.
Although our data did not allow us to track whether people went to college before, during, or after incarceration, such low rates of postsecondary education among formerly incarcerated people suggests that people who have access to college rarely go to prison and criminalized people rarely have the opportunity to get a college degree.
Part of the problem is the limited number of in-prison college programs, which are available in only a fraction of the number of facilities that offered them 25 years ago. But even after release, formerly incarcerated people face barriers to enrolling in college programs. They continue to face punishment in the form of federal financial aid restrictions, discriminatory college admissions practices, and occupational licensing restrictions that can negate educational achievements. Some of the greatest barriers to accessing higher education while incarcerated or after release from prison include:
These barriers signal to formerly incarcerated people that they are unwelcome in institutions of higher learning, prevent their economic integration, and contribute to the revolving door of release and re-incarceration.
Our analysis uncovers how some racial and gender groups face larger educational disadvantages than others. In particular, 40% of formerly incarcerated Hispanic women over the age of 25 must navigate their communities with neither a high school diploma nor GED, but with the stigma of a criminal record instead.24 Again, nearly half of these women are unemployed.
Even more unsettling is the fact that no more than 6% of any demographic group surveyed had completed college. These outcomes mirror educational attainment rates in the general population from 40-50 years ago and undoubtedly contribute to labor market difficulties in an increasingly demanding economy.25
Because our analysis focuses on formerly incarcerated people, we also considered the question of whether these educational disadvantages would eventually disappear — for example, as a result of comprehensive reentry programming. Unfortunately, it appears that even four or more years after release, the educational attainment of formerly incarcerated people still lags well behind that of the general public.
With the data, we were able to compare the educational attainment of people who had been recently released from prison (within a year of the survey) to those who had been back in the community for four years or more. Ideally, with robust reentry support, those who had been in the community for four years or more would have had the opportunity to advance their educations, and would report educational attainment much higher than people who were recently released. But the differences are underwhelming; we find that between the first year after release and four or more years after release:
Although the narrowing of the high school education gap is encouraging, these results aren’t as significant as we would hope and formerly incarcerated people remain far less likely than the general public to take part in any postsecondary educational experiences. There are, however, opportunities to alleviate these educational inequalities and prevent them from ever occurring in the first place.
The severe educational barriers that formerly incarcerated people face reinforces their broader exclusion from society and harms the social and economic viability of the communities to which they return.
To remedy this exclusion, we need a new, evidence-based policy framework that addresses K-12 schooling, prison education programs, and reentry systems, which would yield measurable economic and public safety rewards.26 Below, we detail important policy recommendations that would help to achieve these goals.
This report’s analysis of educational attainment and exclusion among formerly incarcerated people is primarily based on data from the National Former Prisoner Survey. The survey was a product of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and mainly asks about sexual assault and rape behind bars, but it also contains some very useful data on education.
Because this survey contains such sensitive and personal information, the raw data was not available publicly online. Instead, it is kept in a secure data enclave in the basement of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Access to the data required the approval of an independent Institutional Review Board, the approval of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and required us to access the data under close supervision.
The practicalities of having to travel across the country in order to query a computer database limited the amount of time that we could spend with the data, and other rules restricted how much data we could bring with us. Additionally, if the number of respondents falling within any one group was too small, we were not allowed to export the data for that group due to privacy concerns.
The National Former Prisoner Survey (NFPS) began in January 2008 and concluded in October 2008, and was derived from the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which mandated that the Bureau of Justice Statistics investigate sexual victimization among formerly incarcerated people.
The NFPS dataset includes 17,738 adult respondents who were previously incarcerated in state prisons and under parole supervision at the time of the survey. Individual respondents were randomly selected from a random sample of over 250 parole offices across the United States.
It is important to note that because this survey was given to people on parole, it is not a perfect tool to measure educational attainment among all formerly incarcerated people. Some incarcerated people are released without supervision, and their ability to attain further educational credentials may differ from those on parole. Previous research suggests that parole obligations may, in and of themselves, create logistical barriers for people attempting to secure consistent work and school schedules.28
We drew upon specific NFPS survey questions for this report:
For measures of educational attainment in the general public, we used Census Bureau population estimates from the Current Population Survey (CPS), particularly Table A-2 from the CPS Historical Time Series Tables (2017) and Table 1 from Educational Attainment in the United States: 2008.
The data behind the graphs in this report (Figures 1, 3, and 4) are in the tables below. (Note that, due to rounding, percentages may not total 100%.)
|Highest educational attainment||General public||Formerly incarcerated|
|No high school diploma or GED||13%||25%|
|High school diploma||28%||20%|
|Bachelor’s degree or higher||29%||4%|
|Unemployment by race/ethnicity and gender|
|Population||Educational attainment||White men||White women||Black men||Black women||Hispanic men||Hispanic women|
|General public||No high school diploma or GED||7.9%||8.7%||15.6%||13.4%||7.6%||9.4%|
|Formerly incarcerated||No high school diploma or GED||25%||29%||42%||60%||34%||47%|
|Formerly incarcerated||All education levels||18%||21%||33%||37%||26%||33%|
|Educational attainment||White men||White women||Black men||Black women||Hispanic men||Hispanic women|
|No high school diploma or GED||16%||18%||29%||33%||35%||41%|
|Bachelor’s degree or higher||5%||6%||3%||4%||2%||1%|
This report, for the first time, analyzes educational attainment among formerly incarcerated people using nationally representative data, and compares post-release employment outcomes by educational level. Two previous, commonly cited studies have used national survey data to examine education among currently incarcerated people. These studies, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the U.S. Census Bureau, include people incarcerated in federal prisons, local jails, and other facilities, and focus on different research questions, such as reasons for dropping out of school, family background, and current educational enrollment. The BJS study includes an analysis of employment prior to incarceration, while the Census study does not address employment at all.
Researchers and policymakers interested in the education of correctional populations may find the following comparison of our analysis to these earlier national studies useful.
|Getting Back on Course(this report)||Education and Correctional Populations||Educational Characteristics of Prisoners: Data from the ACS|
|Published by||Prison Policy Initiative||Bureau of Justice Statistics||U.S. Census Bureau|
|Data collected (year)||2008||1997||2009|
|Populations||People on parole who were previously incarcerated in state prisons||People in state or federal prisons, in local jails, or on probation||Adults in federal and state prisons, local jails, federal detention centers, correctional residential facilities, and military disciplinary barracks and jails|
|Demographic breakdowns offered||
|Levels of educational attainment examined||
|Employment||Analysis of employment after incarceration||Analysis of employment prior to incarceration||No employment analysis of incarcerated population|
|Special topics covered||Educational level by time since release from prison |
(1 year or less since release compared to 4 years or more since release)
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is known for its visual breakdown of mass incarceration in the U.S., as well as its data-rich analyses of how states vary in their use of punishment. The Prison Policy Initiative’s research is designed to reshape debates around mass incarceration by offering the “big picture” view of critical policy issues, such as probation and parole, women’s incarceration, and youth confinement.
The Prison Policy Initiative also works to shed light on the economic hardships faced by justice-involved people and their families, often exacerbated by correctional policies and practice. Past reports have shown that people in prison and people held pretrial in jail start out with lower incomes even before arrest, earn very low wages working in prison, and face unparalleled obstacles to finding work and securing stable housing after they get out.
Lucius Couloute is a Policy Analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative and a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; his dissertation examines both the structural and cultural dynamics of reentry systems. Getting Back on Course is the third and final report in a series analyzing data from the National Former Prisoner Survey, all authored or co-authored by Lucius. The first report in the series, Out of Prison & Out of Work, provided the first-ever national unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people. The second, Nowhere to Go, offered the first estimate of homelessness among the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the U.S.
This report benefitted from the expertise and input of many individuals. The author is particularly indebted to Dan Kopf for technical assistance and retrieving this data from the ICPSR Physical Enclave, Jodi Anderson for his insight into the value of education for criminalized people, Alma Castro for IRB assistance, Allen Beck for his insight into the NFPS, the ICPSR staff for their data retrieval support, Elydah Joyce for the banner illustration, and his Prison Policy Initiative colleagues, who have provided immeasurable assistance on each of the reports using the National Former Prisoner Survey.
This report was supported by a generous grant from the Public Welfare Foundation and by our individual donors, who give us the resources and the flexibility to quickly turn our insights into new movement resources.