Higher Education in Texas Prisons: What We All Have to Gain

Chris Willuhn, Director of New Projects

This is the first of a three-part blog series on higher education in Texas prisons. Stay tuned for the second and third parts in the next few weeks!

The state of higher education in prisons in Texas and across the nation will enter a new phase in July. For the first time in nearly three decades, incarcerated people will be eligible to receive Pell Grants to finance their pursuit of a postsecondary degree or workforce credential. The change is a result of bipartisan consensus in Congress following the remarkable success of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, a federal pilot project operated by the U.S. Department of Education.

So what does this change mean for Texas? Put simply, it offers a rare opportunity to disrupt the inescapable nexus of poverty, societal abandonment, and criminalization that has damaged the lives of countless system-impacted Texans, their families, and communities across the state.

Before we consider the compelling body of evidence surrounding this topic, it’s important to consider the experiences of formerly incarcerated students, many of whom have become the most ardent champions of expanding postsecondary education in Texas prisons.

Meet Alexa and Craig

Alexa Garza was 19 years old when she was incarcerated. “I thought my life was over,” she says plainly. It wasn’t until she learned she could take college classes that she saw a path forward. “I’m going to study as much as I can, get educated,” she told herself, “because I will leave this place.”

Over the course of 15 years and with her family’s support (Pell Grants were not available), Alexa earned her bachelor’s degree. Today, she is a Texas Policy Associate with The Education Trust, working to make the opportunities she had available to countless others — all while earning her master’s in business administration from Texas Women’s University.

Learn more about Alexa’s story

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When Craig Caudill began his sentence, he was committed to ensuring that time wasn’t wasted. “The only way I could feel like I was doing something was getting a college education. I wanted to take every class.”

After years of battling poverty, drug addiction, and undiagnosed PTSD from his military service during the Gulf War, Craig leaned into education as a way to stave off boredom, grow his intellect, and better understand himself and the world around him. He ultimately earned three associate’s degrees — in business, humanities, and microcomputer applications — in addition to a commercial driver’s license.

Today, Craig runs his own trucking business and hopes to reach $1 million in revenue this year, his first full year of operation. He even regularly visits Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities to share his story with others. “My life is incredible,” he says. “I’m blessed. I’ve worked very hard to get what I have.”

Alexa and Craig’s stories are just two examples of what is possible with higher education in prisons. But are they simply exceptional? Let’s take a broader view and see what the data says.

The Evidence

Fortunately, the research around higher education in prisons is every bit as compelling as its individual success stories.

Recidivism reduction

According to the agency’s biennial report, TDCJ’s current recidivism rate is 20.3%, meaning that just over 1 in 5 people released will be reincarcerated within three years. Research has shown that postsecondary education could reduce that recidivism rate. A 2014 meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation found that correctional education programs reduce recidivism among students by 43% (13 percentage points); with limited evidence suggesting that figure could be higher for postsecondary education participants.

More recently, a report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that prison education reduces recidivism by 14.8% overall, and a much higher 27.7% for incarcerated college (associate’s degree or higher) students. Lee College, the largest institution of higher education serving students in TDCJ facilities, claims that among its students released in 2018, the recidivism rate was just 6%, less than one-third of the statewide average.

Employment and Workforce

In recent testimony, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller cited research claiming that by 2030, 62% of jobs in Texas will require some postsecondary education. What’s more, TDCJ recently announced as part of its 2030 plan an ambitious goal to have a 95% employment rate among persons released from its custody. Committing to education will be crucial to meet those goals, and the evidence again suggests that it would be effective.

Research from the Vera Institute of Justice, Mackinac Center, and numerous other academic studies show positive associations between postsecondary education in prison, employment rates, and earnings at release. In particular, Mackinac’s study, released earlier this year, shows that students who participated in college in prison saw a 10% increase in employment — nearly five percentage points. In an environment in which labor shortages are occurring more widely and employers are demanding more education and skills from workers, higher education in prison seems to offer clear value to formerly incarcerated workers and businesses alike.

Safer Facilities

There are significant benefits to postsecondary education for incarcerated people who have lengthy or even life sentences, as well. Research conducted at Urban Institute Justice Policy Center and City University of New York through interviews with incarcerated people, prison guards, and administrators found widespread agreement that college-in-prison programs led to better overall outlook and self-esteem, fewer conduct issues throughout facilities, and a safer prison environment. As TDCJ grapples with a significant staffing crisis — with some units having more vacancies than full-time correctional officers — improving the climate and stability of its facilities would be hugely beneficial.

These factors, along with the cognitive and intergenerational effects present throughout higher education, set a strong evidentiary basis for prioritizing postsecondary education within TDCJ facilities. With more than 125,000 people currently incarcerated in state prisons, the potential benefits for individuals, their families, and communities all across Texas are huge. We just need to make sure we get there.

In the next part of this blog series, we’ll lay out the current policy landscape of higher education in Texas prisons before concluding with our policy recommendations.