How Higher Education Can Change the Future for Incarcerated Californians

by Gail Yen

Policy and Research Analyst


Topics: Affordability, Community Colleges, Degree Attainment, Four-Year Colleges, Population, Ed Equity


California has long recognized the benefits of having a college education: it has the potential to create more job opportunities and improve the social and economic well-being of students and their families. As a result, California has been dedicated to making college accessible and affordable for all its residents. To make higher education accessible for all Californians, the approximately 200,000* adults in our state’s criminal justice system1 should not be overlooked. This population, on average, are less educated than the general population.Therefore, a college education for an incarcerated student is a powerful tool that has a powerful intergenerational impact on families as it helps break the cycle of recidivism and increases their social and economic mobility. In fact, providing incarcerated adults access to higher education in prison lowers the odds of recidivating by 43 percent and increases the likelihood of employment by 13 percent, while saving $5 for every $1 spent.3 We must recognize that these students’ success is part of California’s success by including them in our existing higher education structures and by ensuring that they continue on to receive a degree. 

What Access Do Incarcerated Adults Have to Higher Education?


It is only in the last five years that California has transformed its public higher education landscape for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults. This change is due to the critical partnership between the criminal justice systems and the public higher education systems, specifically community colleges as they remain the primary point of entry for most incarcerated students. They are located close to every state prison, with 21 of California’s 35 prisons located within 20 miles of a community college campus,4 and with 90 percent of the state’s jail inmates located less than ten miles from a community college.5

In an attempt to capitalize on this accessibility and flexibility, Senate Bill 1391 was passed in 2014 to allow community colleges to teach in-person in prison and for these institutions to be funded for incarcerated students just as if those students were on their home campuses. Prior to the passage of SB 1391, only two of 35 prisons offered a face-to-face college program: The Prison University Project at San Quentin prison and Chaffey College serving students at Chino Institute for Women. Now, 34 of 35 prisons have face-to-face college programs and the enrollment has skyrocketed in these programs: the number went from zero in 2014 to 4,443 students in 2017.6 That is because these face-to-face community college courses are transferable and degree-eligible, allowing students to continue their education even if they transfer to another institution and even if they are released to an area of the state different from the one in which they are incarcerated. However, even with the increase and success of these in prison education programs, there are still gaps, specifically the lack of access to the programs. While more than 4,000 students enrolled after the passage of SB 1391, that is only a fraction of 200,000 potential students. 

Policymakers should continue to make innovative investments to address the obstacles that stand in the way of postsecondary opportunities for all Californians, including the 200,000 incarcerated adults in our state.

Can Incarcerated Adults Afford College?

One of the aforementioned gaps is a lack of access to greater financial aid options. The majority of people in prison are enrolled in face-to-face community college courses since their tuition is waived through the California College Promise Grant. However, access to postsecondary education opportunities should not be limited to just community college. They should also be able to obtain other state and federal financial aid options. Currently in California, incarcerated adults are not eligible for Cal Grants. Additionally, in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which blocked incarcerated individuals from accessing Pell Grants. After the implementation of the Pell Grant ban, the number of prison-based educational programs rapidly declined and subsequently translated into fewer educational opportunities for incarcerated students. As a result, many remain locked in a vicious cycle of poverty and potential recidivism. Additionally, it has a negative impact on the economy as there are fewer skilled workers available to employers and an increase in incarceration costs for states due to higher recidivism rates. These negative effects require us to examine the importance of not only restoring Pell Grant eligibility but also increasing access to all types of financial aid eligibility for incarcerated students, including access to Cal Grants.

The positive effects of restoring Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students have already been demonstrated in various communities through a three-year pilot program that began in 2015 by the Obama Administration called the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. The objective of the initiative was to examine how providing Pell Grants to incarcerated students influences their participation in education opportunities and academic outcomes. When it started, 67 colleges were originally selected for participation, and three were California colleges—Cuesta College, Chaffey College and California State University, Los Angeles. While the U.S. Department of Education has yet to formally evaluate the results of the initiative, there is anecdotal evidence showing the benefits. Additionally, one analysis showed that reinstating federal Pell Grant access for people in prison would likely result in an increase of economic and fiscal benefits. Restoration of Pell Grant eligibility would also benefit employers. Employment projections indicate that there will be nearly 5 million job openings over the next decade for which the typical entry-level education requirement will range from some college to a bachelor’s degree. 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. Seeing that there are clear benefits to restoring Pell Grant eligibility for our economy, there is momentum in Congress to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. Examples are through advocacy from diverse groups and through The Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2019 (REAL) introduced by Senators Schatz, Lee and Durbin, and has gained bipartisan cosponsors and support. There is also momentum at the state level to expand state financial aid access to incarcerated students through SB 575 (Bradford), which would expand Cal Grant eligibility to incarcerated students. The bill is awaiting its final vote by the legislature before going to the governor’s office.

San Francisco State University

In addition to supporting incarcerated adults, investments have also been made for those who were formerly incarcerated, many of whom begin their higher education journey while incarcerated but are released before degree completion. Our state’s public colleges are paving the way by creating pathways to campus and to degree completion for these potential students. The most popular program is Project Rebound, which started at San Francisco State University and has now replicated across nine California State University campuses. It is a program to help formerly incarcerated students prepare, apply, enroll, and graduate with a degree from a CSU. Due to the program’s great reputation and positive outcomes, the Governor’s most recent budget included $3.3 million to continue and expand Project Rebound programs to other CSU campuses. This means there will be more opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults to complete their degree and to improve their employment prospects.

California has made significant progress and investments over the last five years to ensure that both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults have the opportunity to attain a college degree.  It is important to keep that momentum going. Policymakers should continue to make innovative investments to address the obstacles that stand in the way of postsecondary opportunities for all Californians, including the 200,000 incarcerated adults in our state. As noted above, a college degree for incarcerated adults helps to not only break the cycle of recidivism, but also can alleviate the economic barriers formerly incarcerated adults face, which in turn helps California’s economy.  

* This number excludes those on parole and probation. If those populations are counted for, there would actually be 565,000 California residents who are behind bars or under criminal justice supervision.


1. Corrections Population: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; The Sentencing Project, State by State Data (2017)

2. Lois Davis; Robert Bozick, “Learning Behind Bars…the Effectiveness of Education in Prisons” (September 2016)

3. 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 (RAND Corporation, 2013).

4. Debbie Mukamal and Rebecca Silbert, Don’t Stop Now: California Leads the Nation in Using Public Higher Education to Address Mass Incarceration. Will We Continue? (Corrections to California, 2018)

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.