Free College for Inmates?

Should prisoners have access to higher education while incarcerated? If so, should that access be funded by taxpayers?

Those questions were raised after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in February that he wanted to create a state-run college program for prison inmates.

The governor claimed the program would reduce recidivism rates—the rates at which inmates return to prison after their initial release. His premise was that by spending $5 million on the program now, the state’s high cost-per-prisoner ($60,000 each year) would be reduced in the long run by transforming felons into productive members of society.

New York Republicans and even some Democrats immediately denounced the proposal as an affront to people struggling to send their children to college and pay off massive student loans. “Why should law-abiding citizens get the short end of the stick, while convicted felons get subsidized?” they asked.

Last week, Cuomo yielded to the political pressure. Abandoning his original plan, he now wants the program to move forward as a charity-based initiative building on an existing program offered by Bard College, a private liberal arts school in the state.

For two reasons, the governor’s change of direction, although a reluctant one, should be viewed as a positive development.

First, New York taxpayers were spared a program that would not have produced its intended results. The low recidivism rates of participating prisoners conceal the fact that such prisoners are less inclined, even without completing college coursework, to return to crime. Many possess some baseline education and are highly motivated to increase their human capital while incarcerated. In other words, they are exceptions.

Furthermore, participation is voluntary and graduation is not mandatory. With the state socializing the costs of prison education, New York’s average per-prisoner expenses would increase. Some prisoners who wouldn’t otherwise enter a program (or who might have been declined by a private program seeking to minimize waste) would sign up for courses and then drop out.

The second reason Cuomo’s shift should be viewed positively is that it places a spotlight on private charity. It’s time to look at serious alternatives to publicly funded prisoner education.

The recent history of post-secondary prison education reveals a mix of public and private support. From 1972-1994, prisoners were eligible for federal Pell grants. The flow of federal funding expanded the supply of post-secondary prison programs. At one point there were 350 programs in 37 states. But the mid-1990s brought significant “tough on crime”-based legislative changes. Congress and the Clinton administration ended prisoners’ Pell grant eligibility, and states like New York stopped providing inmates with tuition assistance. Soon, the number of post-secondary prison programs in the country was reduced to eight.

Today, however, almost half of the 50 states offer higher education to prisoners. Some states’ programs are funded by a patchwork of Department of Education, state, university, and charity money. Other states, like Ohio, Connecticut, Louisiana, Kansas, Oregon, Washington, New York, and California, have programs funded predominantly by private individuals and institutions.

North Carolina receives a “Youth Offenders” grant from the Education Department to fund its program. It is coordinated by the Department of Corrections and directed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center for Continuing Education. Twenty-five prisons and five other universities (East Carolina University, UNC-Asheville, NC Central, Fayetteville State, and NC State) participate.

Each year, approximately 1,000 inmates take tuition-free courses. Almost 170 degrees, including master’s and doctoral degrees, have been granted in the Friday Center’s 40-year history. Admission is based on an inmate’s GED score, reading level, and whether he or she has previously completed college coursework. Per Education Department regulations, prospective students must be younger than 35 and be eligible for release from prison in 7 years. They cannot be admitted if they’ve committed crimes against children or violent sexual offenses.

North Carolina’s community college system offers programs, too. The system waives tuition and fees for inmates and the state reimburses the college system, as authorized by the General Assembly. In the 2009-2010 academic year, almost $7 million of tuition was waived for thousands of prisoners pursuing GEDs, associate degree coursework, and special certificates. As of 2007, 45 community colleges in the state were providing education at 78 prisons across North Carolina.

In a 2010 article for the Civitas Institute, Andrew Henson noted that state lawmakers alotted $33 million to North Carolina’s Prisoner Education Program in fiscal year 2009-2010. He argued that claims about participants’ lowered recidivism rates are dubious, that many of the courses and certificate programs don’t help prisoners find jobs, and that private institutions, not the state, should operate prisoner reintegration programs.

It is difficult to know exactly what North Carolina prisoner education would look like in the absence of government programs. However, a bit of history and a survey of private initiatives can help us visualize such a landscape. The Friday Center actually began with money from three private foundations. In 1972, two years before state and federal money altered the size and scope of the program, 20 inmates were taking courses.

And today, in states such as California and New York, privately funded organizations are making big strides toward enhancing and expanding prisoner education:

  • In 1996, a University of California-Davis professor started a program at San Quentin State Prison on a shoestring budget and with no state or federal funding. Thanks to fundraising, it expanded and now provides courses for 400 students each year. In 18 years, the program has conferred approximately 100 degrees. Faculty members volunteer.
  • Founded in 1998, the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison is a nonprofit organization that serves prisoners at four New York prisons. Hudson Link facilitates a partnership between Vassar College, Nyack College, Mercer College, and Sullivan County Community College. Almost 300 associate and bachelor’s degrees have been conferred since the early 2000s. Private donations and grants pick up the tab.
  • The Bard Prison Initiative originated in 1999. It now has about 200 students and confers associate and bachelor’s degrees. New York’s Bard College, which runs the Initiative, also manages a Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison which works with colleges in other states—Wesleyan University, Goucher College, and Grinnell College—to “prepare people returning from prison for a life of personal flourishing, civic engagement, and professional success.”

The organizations from California and New York were created by concerned individuals responding to a situation in which the government was no longer available—it had been crowding them out. They filled a need by volunteering time, money, and resources, and changed lives for the better in the process.

North Carolinians—and the rest of the country—should take note. The California and New York examples make clear that there is plenty of concern for prisoner rehabilitation. Rather than have taxpayers subsidize prisoners‘ schooling, let’s promote voluntary alternatives and charitable organizations that are more responsive to prisoners’ individual needs and the goals of those contributing money and resources.