While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.
Today, only a third of all prisons provide ways for incarcerated people to continue their educations beyond high school.
The idea of expanding educational opportunities to prisoners as a way to reduce recidivism and government spending has again gained momentum. That’s partly because of a study published in 2013 by the right-leaning RAND Corporation showing that inmates who took classes had a 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13 percent higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.
Learning gives us a different understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and it provides us tools to become more empathetic. That’s why prisons with educational programs are often safer, and why there is a stronger correlation between educational levels and voting than with socioeconomic background.
Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America. Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Wesleyan and New York University are among a handful of institutions that realize this and have begun to create ways for incarcerated people to take college classes. These universities recognize that they have a moral responsibility to pursue educational justice for prisoners, a group that has disproportionately attended under-resourced public schools.
The question we should ask ourselves is not “Will incarcerated students transform the university?” The better question is, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?”