Funding postsecondary education for incarcerated Oklahomans could pay off for public safety and the budget

Oklahoma has made encouraging progress on justice reform in recent years. Reforms passed in 2016 and 2018 will slow prison population growth and spur investments in rehabilitation. While these are important steps in the right direction, criminal justice reform should not only lower prison admissions or hasten release. Nearly 27,000 individuals are in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody, and approximately 90 percent will eventually be released. For justice reform to be successful in the long-term, we must prepare those currently incarcerated for meaningful re-entry back into our communities.

One crucial component to successful reentry is access to postsecondary education. Incarcerated individuals are under-educated. Among the general public, about one in three adults have a college degree; for formerly incarcerated, fewer than one in 20 do. On average, men entering Oklahoma prisons have a sixth-grade education; women have an-eighth grade education, according to DOC staff. Despite its budgetary difficulties, DOC has been proactive in providing high school education to incarcerated individuals at no cost to the individual. Going further to expand access to postsecondary education for Oklahoma’s incarcerated individuals would yield benefits not only to incarcerated individuals, but to the state’s safety and budget as a whole.


Investing in postsecondary education in prisons brings multiple benefits

 Postsecondary education lowers recidivism primarily by helping formerly incarcerated people get a job after they’re released. According to one study, providing incarcerated individuals with postsecondary education reduces recidivism by 46 percent. Incarceration without programming has a minimal, even potentially adverse, effect on a person’s likelihood to reoffend post-release. Secondary education and vocational training programs also reduce recidivism, but these effects are smaller than those of postsecondary education. The reason is because those who receive some postsecondary education while incarcerated experience higher rates of post-release employment than those who do not. This may in part be because those who receive only vocational training while incarcerated face difficulties obtaining employment due to Oklahoma’s licensing restrictions for those with a criminal record. As more jobs require higher education, it is important that incarcerated individuals pursue postsecondary education in order to improve their employment options.

Investing in postsecondary for incarcerated individuals is also cost-effective for states. In 2003, Texas helped 66 incarcerated individuals achieve associate’s degrees at a cost of less than $2.6 million. By the end of three years, the savings from avoiding re-incarceration for this cohort exceeded the cost of educating them by nearly $274,000. One study calculated that for every dollar spent on prison postsecondary education, the state receives a four to five dollar return on investment by decreasing the number those of returning to prison.

Prison postsecondary education programs also have a positive effect on prison safety by providing a sense of agency and opportunity. This improves the social climate and overall safety for both inmates and staff.

Oklahoma inmates lack access to postsecondary education programs

Oklahoma DOC provides 27 degree programs and postsecondary courses at 22 of its 27 facilities. However, they are out of reach for many. Only 11 percent of eligible incarcerated individuals participated in postsecondary education programs nationwide in 2003-04, primarily due to financial barriers. Individuals are responsible for paying for the costs associated with taking college courses, but most are from low-income backgrounds and often cannot afford classes. In 2014, the median income for people prior to incarceration was less than $20,000. While some individuals earn some money while incarcerated, this income is often far below the minimum wage and must be partially allocated to other obligations, like restitution and toiletries.

In 2015, President Obama with the Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Program after Congress had eliminated Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in 1994. This program allows students to apply for financial assistance for postsecondary education while incarcerated. SCP selected 70 colleges to participate in the program, including three Oklahoma institutions: Connors State College, Tulsa Community College, and Langston University. According to Connors State, SCP has been instrumental in boosting enrollment among incarcerated Oklahomans.

Oklahoma must make prison postsecondary education a priority

Without financial assistance, postsecondary education is an impossibility for the vast majority of incarcerated individuals. The success of Second Chance Pell in boosting enrollment demonstrates the need for financial assistance, but Oklahoma cannot rely solely on federal funding. SCP provides funding for only a few hundred Oklahoman students and precludes those with drug-related convictions from eligibility, effectively excluding over 26 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated population. Further, SCP must be renewed by the Department of Education every year, making it a precarious source of funding.

Oklahoma DOC has struggled to fully support programs amidst insufficient funding, leaving prisons badly understaffed and facilities in dire conditions. If legislators want to reduce recidivism and save money through postsecondary education, they have options: increasing DOC appropriations to allow for postsecondary financial assistance or creating a specialized scholarship program through the State Regents for Higher Education, to name a few possibilities. These steps would take relatively small investments and pay big dividends. Postsecondary education may not be possible for all individuals in DOC custody. However, expanding access to prison postsecondary education can provide immense benefits to the individual, the corrections system, and the state. 


Anna Rouw was a criminal justice policy intern with OK Policy. She graduated from the University of Tulsa and is now a research analyst with the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

2 thoughts on “Funding postsecondary education for incarcerated Oklahomans could pay off for public safety and the budget

  1. While post-secondary education during incarceration might be an option for the few who value higher education, a more valid investment is to provide top-notch training during incarceration in skills that produce a living wage — auto repair, plumbing, HVAC. AND, to change licensure laws in the vocations that are offered during incarceration. This would make a HUGE difference for many who just want to earn enough money to support themselves and their families.

    While there are some good programs for men, Mabel Bassett provides very limited skills training like cosmetology and basic computer.

    The most essential components that prevent recidivism is being able to find affordable housing and transportation, and be able to live in communities away from the toxic relationships that work against successful re-entry.

  2. Prisoners will also have a problem obtaining higher education after release. Felony admissions Clearance is a real issue for a returning citizen, and not someone just released it can impact you a decade later.


    I decided this morning I would go to Oklahoma State University to retrieve all the records from my student conduct file. I wanted to know why it took so long to decide on my admission application when I previously applied. Student conduct had me complete a records request for all records.
    I was disappointed to receive only the documentation I had sent them.
    1. Resume
    2. A letter confirming the program I created for families to stay in Suites at the Hotel I previously worked. Created so families could sleep before driving home after watching their children perform at the University at affordable rates. The program focused on scholarship students in the Music dept and orchestra but was available to all.
    3. A personal reference letter from Communications Specialist Michelle Hockersmith OSU Staff.
    4. A personal Reference letter from a regular guest and OSU Alumni who also had a daughter going to OSU, and I had had the pleasure of working with when I was at the Hotel.
    5. A printout verification that I was an elected member of the State Board of Directors for the Central Oklahoma Action Agency.
    6. An Ad where I’m named in The OSU program for their theater dept.
    7. A screenshot of the criminal justice page I have on social media.
    8. I also included a reference letter from Amanda Peyrot the case Manager for Payne County at the time for COCAA
    9. I also took the time and effort to go on pacer and print every writ, vacated judgment, and my final judgment and sentence.
    10. I printed out my DOC Wrap sheet that is publicly available to anyone to find to expedite the process.
    My last felony act occurred in 2006

    My sentence was vacated in 2009 and then pled guilty to a new charge 2009.

    I applied to college at OSU in 2019 after a decade later after completing an associate’s degree.

    After reading this case study, It reminded me of my own experience with Oklahoma State University.


    I just read this, and when thinking of my own experience with Oklahoma State, you would think I had every advantage over Susan.

    I had a GPA qualifying me to be in the honor society.

    I had worked closely with the University in my previous job.

    I had faculty references

    I was an advisory board member at a local non-profit agency.

    I was elected to the State Board for the region of the previous agency funded by the state for Payne County.

    On this Board, I serve alongside 4 County Commissioners and a former Oklahoma House of Representative’s Members Mother.

    Did Oklahoma State University protect the Students or just prevent someone from trying to get ahead.

    My duty is a board member is to oversee the Executive Director and the outcomes of programs, some of which the agency receives from the State of Oklahoma and Federal Grants. We are governed by the Open Meetings Act, and my assets are subject to disclosure upon request. I disclosed my past to the Board at the first meeting in the spirit of honesty.

    I have been the General Manager of 2 Restaurants, including financial oversight.

    Assistant Manager of another, including responsible for making deposits of several thousands of dollars.

    Assistant Manager of a Hotel in Stillwater, working closely with Oklahoma State University.

    Legal Assistant in a Federal Law Firm.

    Had just finished my degree at OCCC

    By the way, my crime is a financial crime for theft over a decade old.

    I am just curious about what kept Oklahoma State University to keep seeking more and more information until I went elsewhere, or was that the plan all along. I guess they really saved the day, not letting me in you did a great job! Way to go protecting the University.

    Whatever the reason, I applied to OSU 8/28/2019 and never received an answer, not by 9/25/2019, and in my opinion, my application would not be a tough decision.

    The people were virtually non-responsive in the student conduct at OSU, and that is a shame considering the head of the Department has a background in Criminology

    I applied to Langston on 9/25/2019 and admitted a week later on 10/01/2019, and as I recall, we were waiting on my transcript to arrive.

    Should I have been given an opportunity? What am I doing today?

    I have a 3.716 GPA, and I am a member of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences, Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa International honor society, and on the Presidents Honor roll.

    I am a donor and lifetime member of the Langston University Alumni Association.

    I am a donor and lifetime member of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.

    I care about my community and others

    I made some horrible life decisions in my past, and I will tell anyone about that horrific stuff, but I usually share things like that privately. I am not the worst thing I have ever done, and neither is anyone else.

    I plan to go on and obtain my masters and teach criminal justice, and if it isn’t possible yet, then I will keep working toward that because I have value.

    Legislators, please contact me for anything you need or want to explore that I can offer perspective or ideas. I do not care about your party. I care about solutions.

    We need to find a solution to this problem, education should not be withheld because of a mistake. Studies show education reduces recidivism.

    The point is clearing me for admission was not a hard call for Oklahoma State University. In my opinion the Director should lose her job a look at my record doesn’t require a lot of hard thought.


    Shad Hagan
    Central Oklahoma Community Action Agency Board of Directors (Payne County)
    Langston University Student

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