What are the effects of prison higher education?

In contrast to the damage done by imprisonment, higher education can provide individuals with a path to economic and generational advancement. According to a recent estimate, the economic returns to a college degree exceed 15 percent and, over a lifetime, average earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree are roughly $570,000 higher than for those with only a high school education.

In partnership with Mount Tamalpais College (formerly the Prison University Project) at San Quentin State Prison and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), we set out to examine whether and how participation in prison-based higher education can alter a broad set of outcomes related to skill acquisition, mental health, civic engagement, educational attainment, and criminal justice involvement.

Using original, longitudinal surveys, in-depth interviews, and administrative data from both the college program and CDCR, the project provides evidence that higher education has the potential to alter not only the experiences individuals have while incarcerated, but also their perceptions of themselves and their ability to shape their future trajectory.

Our results make important contributions to our understanding of the potential for transformative learning within the otherwise harsh confines of a prison. As incarcerated individuals move from perceiving themselves as “prisoner” to an identity of “student,” they can come to embody the norms and values of openness to new ideas, critical thinking, and self-reflection that predominate in the college classroom.

These deeper transformations are not only about reducing recidivism; rather, they extend to the ways education can expand students’ civic orientation and capacity to support those around them. Put another way: college programs within prison are not solely, or even primarily, a criminological intervention. Rather, they are experienced by students as an educational intervention. Thus, higher education programs in prison should be held to the same standards as a college or university anywhere: they should be evaluated by the extent to which they provide students with the skills and capacity to advance in their lives and careers, and to contribute to their families, communities, and the world around them.

This research will hopefully prove valuable to the growing cadre of higher education programs operating in prison, as well as the increasing number of traditional colleges and universities enrolling students who have been previously incarcerated. In California, where MTC is based, about 50,000 people each year are released from incarceration, and some 400,000 people in the state are under community supervision on any given day. An estimated 96 percent of these individuals live within 15 miles of a college campus. By understanding the critical role that higher education can play in shaping the self-efficacy and civic orientation of historically disadvantaged students, we highlight the importance of expanding access to high-quality higher education for all.

This project was made possible with funding from The Spencer Foundation.


Policy Brief

Transformational Learning and Identify Shift: Evidence from a College Behind Bars

Policy Brief

Best Practices in Prison Higher Education

Research Report

Prison University Project Program Evaluation Progress Report

Research Report

The Prison University Project Qualitative Evidence on the Impact of Prison Higher Education

Journal Article

Transformational learning and identity shift: Evidence from a campus behind bars


MTC Evaluation Results


MTC Evaluation: Extended Results and Future Opportunities Fall 2021

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