PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults Confirms the Need for Investment in Correctional Education

On November 15, 2016, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released the results of the U.S. Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Survey of Incarcerated Adults. The survey, which examines incarcerated adults’ skills, work experience, and education, demonstrates a clear need to invest in correctional education and training.

IES compared a national sample of incarcerated adults in federal, state, and private prisons with data on the average U.S. household, finding stark differences in economic success. The results reinforce lessons from CLASP’s recent forum, Reconnecting Justice: Pathways to Effective Reentry though Education and Training, and suggest incarcerated people need more robust correctional education and training opportunities to become successful contributors upon reentering society.

On average, incarcerated adults’ educational attainment is far lower than that of the general population. Among those surveyed, 94 percent of incarcerated adults do not have a postsecondary credential, compared to 64 percent of U.S. households. In addition, 30 percent of incarcerated adults have not obtained a high school credential, compared to 14 percent of the general population.

The survey also finds that Black and Hispanic communities are overrepresented in prisons; they comprise 59 percent of incarcerated individuals but just 26 percent of U.S. households. Further, there are racial disparities in educational attainment, both inside and outside of prisons, for young Black and Hispanic men. Seventy-two percent of young Black men and 83 percent of young Hispanic men who are incarcerated do not have a high school diploma, compared to 58 percent of young White men.

This signals a clear need for educational opportunities that lead to degrees and credentials for incarcerated people. IES reports that just 21 percent of incarcerated adults are studying for a formal degree or credential, despite 70 percent saying they want to enroll. During the economic recovery, people with at least some postsecondary education have filled 95 percent of new jobs. In order to succeed economically, incarcerated individuals need strong correctional education and training programs that help them build skills, earn industry-recognized postsecondary credentials, and access pathways to the workforce when they reenter society. In addition to improving employment outcomes, research shows that these programs significantly reduce recidivism.

While education and training are major factors in helping incarcerated adults succeed, we must also remove barriers that block them from getting jobs when they reenter society. Each year, 650,000 people are released from jails and prisons, where they face nearly insurmountable barriers to employment. According to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 70 percent of them are nonviolent offenders. Despite this, they are often disenfranchised and severely disadvantaged in finding sustainable employment, housing, and health care. These barriers often serve as perpetual punishments and promote recidivism; over two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.

Federal and state policymakers should consider actions to improve correctional education and enable returning citizens to connect the skills they’ve gained to further learning and employment opportunities. Congress should lift the ban on Pell Grants to restore financial aid for postsecondary education during incarceration as well as augment the limited federal funding streams being used for correctional education. We have a long way to go to eliminate the 44,000 collateral consequences of conviction, but investing in correctional education would signal our commitment to rehabilitation and helping underserved communities succeed.