Updated: Dec 27, 2022
According to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report, 25% of formerly incarcerated people don’t have a high school diploma or equivalency — this is nearly twice as high as the rate for the general public. Also, only 4% of ex-offenders have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 25% of the general public has reached this level of education. Ex-offenders have an exceptionally high unemployment rate of 27% as well.
Higher education provides ex-offenders with the ability to find good job opportunities and get their lives back on track. Indeed, people with prior convictions who enroll in college degree programs are 48% less likely to be reincarcerated than those who do not. And education benefits both the ex-offenders and society, as lower rates of recidivism lead to safer neighborhoods and less need to dedicate tax dollars to the prison system.
In this guide, we review how to get into college, the best degrees for people with prior convictions, and everything else that ex-offenders should know about higher education.
How To Continue Your Education After Incarceration
Going back to school after being incarcerated can be challenging. With all of the legal restrictions and institutional biases involved with this process, you may not even know where to start.
Every ex-offender’s situation is different. Some haven’t yet obtained a high school diploma, while others have already earned a college degree. Below, we’ve broken down the next steps that ex-offenders should take in a variety of different scenarios.
What if I’m returning to college to finish a degree?
If you were incarcerated while attending college, you may find that it’s difficult to go back to school to complete your degree program. Any student who has missed more than two semesters will usually need to reapply to enroll in classes again, and most college applications have a question about prior convictions. If you are asked about this, answer truthfully — being upfront about your status as an ex-offender will help prevent any issues from developing later on in the process of obtaining your degree. But it may lower your odds of being accepted back into the program and restrict your access to financial aid.
What if I graduated from a prison education program?
To reduce recidivism rates, all federal prisons and most state prisons have programs that allow inmates to earn their General Educational Development (GED) certificate, also known as a high school equivalency. Some prisons offer more advanced programs that allow inmates to earn an associate degree or even a bachelor’s degree.
Once you’ve been released from prison, you can apply to colleges to further your education. If there are any travel restrictions associated with your release, consider enrolling in a degree program that allows you to take all of your required classes online at first.
What if I don’t have a high school diploma?
It is helpful for ex-offenders who don’t have a high school diploma or equivalency to obtain their GED certificate as soon as possible. This is an important step to setting yourself up for success. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average worker with a high school diploma makes $712 per week, while the average worker with less education only makes $520 per week.
Anyone who’s over 16 years old and not currently enrolled in high school is eligible to take the GED exam, which is broken up into four tests that cover the following subject areas: mathematical reasoning, reasoning through language arts, social studies, and science. You can schedule your test and access study materials through GED.com.
What if I earned a degree during or before incarceration and I want to go to graduate school?
As with applying to an undergraduate degree program, you may be asked if you have any prior convictions when applying to graduate school. It’s in your best interest to disclose this information whenever you are prompted to do so. This often isn’t a problem. You may be rejected from particular grad school programs if your conviction will prevent you from obtaining a license in your field once you have your degree, though. For example, those who have been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs may not get accepted into a Master of Pharmacy program. But occupational licensing laws vary by state and admissions policies vary by school, so check with any graduate school you’re interested in rather than assume it’s not an option for you.
What You Should Know About Returning to School as an Ex-Offender
Being a student comes with many stresses, such as figuring out which courses you need to take to satisfy your degree requirements and maintaining a high GPA. Ex-offenders must overcome additional challenges (keeping up with parole stipulations and staying away from substances and associates that can lead back to criminal activity) to obtain their degree. This can certainly be difficult, but there are many resources available that will help you avoid mistakes and achieve academic success.
How to choose a major
It’s important to follow your passions when deciding on a major, but also be realistic about the limitations that may apply to your career due to your prior convictions. The roadblocks that you might have to deal with on your particular career path will depend on which types of crimes you’ve been convicted of. For example, if you were convicted of any white-collar crimes, you likely won’t be able to find employment in the finance industry.
If you’re having trouble choosing a major, check out Minnesota State University’s resources for Career Planning for People with a Criminal Conviction. This website offers self-assessment quizzes, information on different career paths, and planning tools that you can use to figure out your next move.
How to find grants and scholarships for nontraditional students
Having prior convictions on your record will often limit your access to financial aid. To help compensate for these lost resources, seek out scholarships and grants that are designed specifically for inmates and ex-offenders. Some colleges offer such financial aid awards. For example, Wheaton College provides assistance to ex-offenders through their Charles W. Colson Scholarship, and New York University School of Law has a similar program with their PREP Scholarship Fund. There are also many private foundations that offer scholarships for ex-offenders. Once you’re enrolled in an institution of higher learning, reach out to your school’s financial aid office to see which financing options are available to you.
University support for nontraditional students
In addition to financial aid, your school likely provides other resources that will help you succeed in your degree program. Campus advisors can help you make decisions regarding course selection and other academic areas, and there may be free tutoring services that can provide extra assistance with any subjects you’re struggling with. Most colleges offer counselors who can help you work through any non-academic issues in your life as well. While these services are generally provided to all students, they are especially useful for ex-offenders.
Financial Assistance After Incarceration
You may be able to save yourself a trip to the financial aid office by reading this section of our guide first. From the restrictions on federal aid to your other options for funding your degree program, we address some of the most asked-about topics regarding financial assistance for ex-offenders below.
Can you get financial aid as an ex-offender?
You can receive financial aid as an ex-offender, but your options may be limited.
Pell Grants are the most popular financial aid program in the country. Millions of college students receive this award, which is determined by your income and provides up to $6,495 in funding per year as of 2022. There are two other top options for federal student aid. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant provides up to $4,000 per year, and Federal Student Loans provide up to $65,500 in subsidized loans over the course of your degree program.
There used to be a policy that if you were convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid, you would be ineligible for these programs even after you completed your sentence. This policy is no longer in effect. You will still be ineligible if you are subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, through.
What other ways can ex-offenders get financial help for higher education?
If federal student aid doesn’t fully cover the cost of your degree, you can apply to any private scholarships you qualify for. Many private scholarship programs accept applications from ex-offenders, and some programs are even designed specifically to help ex-offenders further their education. For example, if you were an inmate in the Rhode Island Department of Corrections facility, you may be able to get up to $1,000 from the Transcending Through Education Foundation Scholarship. Strong academic performance is often a requirement for these scholarships, so be sure to keep your grades up.
Best Degrees if You Have a Criminal Conviction
While many other occupations are available to you, two career paths are an especially good fit for ex-offenders: social work and entrepreneurship.
With social work, your background can actually give you an advantage in the job market, as it may allow you to be more relatable and effective in the field. And as for entrepreneurship, this career path gives you the ability to avoid the difficulties of the job search process by becoming your own boss. The following degree programs will help you break into one of these industries.
Some organizations look specifically for ex-offenders to serve as counselors for the currently incarcerated. Your background may also have prepared you for roles such as helping others deal with trauma or teaching at-risk youth how to avoid mistakes. To get licensed as a professional counselor, most states will require you to have earned a graduate degree, such as a Master in Social Work (MSW).
Whether they were directly charged with drug-related crimes or their use of drugs led to other forms of criminal activity, the main reason many ex-offenders have any prior convictions is substance abuse. This is another area of social work where direct experience can help you be more effective in the field.
This two-year degree program will qualify you for entry-level positions in the social work industry, such as research associate and counseling assistant. It’s also a good place to start if you are interested in the more advanced social work degree programs described above.
This degree program will teach you everything you need to know to start a company — you’ll learn about core business principles such as accounting, finance, and marketing. If you’re more interested in climbing the corporate ladder than launching your own venture, consider obtaining a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, as this will make you a more attractive candidate for management positions.
If you’re interested in opening a hospitality business such as a motel, cafe, or restaurant, this specialized degree makes more sense than a general business administration program. It’s also worth noting that getting hired at a restaurant often doesn’t require passing a background check, which provides plenty of job opportunities for ex-offenders in the culinary industry.
Construction is another industry that often doesn’t require candidates for open positions to pass a background check. In a construction management degree program, you’ll learn about structural design concepts, blueprint reading, building information modeling (BIM) software, and other topics that will help you move up in this field.
Non-Traditional Educational Routes for Ex-Offenders
Going to college isn’t the only way to learn skills that will help advance your career. Considering all the barriers to financial aid and professional licensing for ex-offenders, one of the following non-traditional educational routes may work better for you:
Government work programs
The best method for learning new job skills is to get firsthand experience at work, but many employers avoid hiring anyone with prior convictions. To address this problem, the federal government provides tax credits and other financial benefits to businesses that are willing to hire ex-offenders. You can use the Federal Bonding Program website to find participating employers in your area.
Trades such as fire science, culinary arts, and auto repair are more welcoming to ex-offenders than most other occupations. As an added bonus, earning your credentials for these jobs is usually much more affordable than completing a traditional college program.
Workers in the software development industry are highly in demand and well-compensated, and online coding boot camps allow you to learn the skills you need for these jobs in just a few months from the comfort of your own home. If you live in Washington state, check out the Prison Scholar Fund’s partnership with Coding Dojo — this program covers all of Coding Dojo’s course fees and provides a living stipend for five students with prior convictions.
Advocacy Programs and Resources for Ex-Offenders Returning to School
The following resources can also provide you with valuable information for furthering your education and other issues that affect ex-offenders.
This directory, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor, helps ex-offenders find housing, food assistance, and other services in their state.
In addition to federal laws, many of the regulations regarding ex-offenders are set at the state level — this makes it hard to fully grasp the legal situation for any given person with prior convictions. The Restoration of Rights Project provides a state-by-state breakdown so it is much easier to understand the employment, licensing, and housing laws that apply to you.
This nationwide organization was founded back in 1896 — its correctional re-entry services include literacy training, housing assistance, and inpatient substance abuse treatment programs.
Apprenticeships provide you with both a paid job and training that you can use to advance your career. On this website, you’ll find more information about the benefits of these arrangements as well as an Apprenticeship Job Finder that can connect you to opportunities in your area.
Help for Felons provides a variety of resources to ex-offenders, including information on scholarships, housing, and food stamps. The organization also maintains a job board that is updated weekly with new opportunities.