Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
Archived Information

November 16, 2016

Dear Colleagues,

Today, more than two million adults in the United States are incarcerated in local jails and federal and state prisons.[  1  ] The United States accounts for less than five percent of the world's population, but nearly 25 percent of its inmates.[  2  ] According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of state prisoners will leave incarceration and be reintegrated into society at some point. [  3  ] In order to reduce recidivism, it is important for these individuals to become productive and contributing members of our society.  Providing these individuals with opportunity, advancement, and rehabilitation is not only the right thing to do, it also positions our country to remain economically competitive in a global economy.  To foster this reintegration and reduce recidivism, we as a nation must continue to expand and develop correctional education and reentry support programs. 

Research suggests that correctional education programs can have a positive impact on people in prison.  Incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education are 43 percent less likely to recidivate and 58 percent more likely to find post-release employment than incarcerated individuals who do not participate.[  4  ] These outcomes are likely to improve the well-being of the individual, their families, and their communities.  Research also estimates the cost-effectiveness of these programs.  A conservative cost-benefit analysis shows that for every dollar spent on correctional education, four to five dollars may be saved on three-year reincarceration costs.[  5  ]The evidence shows that correctional education programs have the potential to decrease crime, save money, and change lives.  High-quality correctional education has become one of the most effective crime-prevention tools at our disposal.  

On November 15, 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a report on the skills and education and training experiences of our nation's incarcerated population, Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults:  Their Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training.  The study, using 2014 data, was based on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an international study that assesses adult competencies in literacy, numeracy, and technology skills.  The PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults also assessed these skills and examined various demographics in our prison population, such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, health status, educational attainment level, learning disabilities, and parents' educational attainment level.  These data can be compared with individuals in the general population.  Additionally, the report provides information about the availability of and participation in correctional education and training programs and examines inmates' previous and current work experiences.  According to the newly released PIAAC report, 29 percent of incarcerated adults have low literacy skills and another 52 percent have low numeracy skills, compared to 19 percent and 29 percent respectively of U.S. households.  Despite this and limited correctional education and training resources, 21 percent of incarcerated adults are studying for a formal degree or certificate program and 70 percent of incarcerated adults indicated a desire to do so to advance their education. The findings of this report provide us with a deeper understanding of the underlying issues affecting incarcerated individuals, and inspire us to continue this important work.

On July 31, 2015, ED announced Second Chance Pell, an experiment to test outcomes when incarcerated individuals interested in pursuing a postsecondary education are allowed access to Pell Grants.  This announcement stimulated interest and garnered support around correctional education as evident by the sizeable response from over 200 institutions of higher education.   ED announced its partnership with 69 postsecondary institutions across the country, providing Pell Grants to approximately 12,000 incarcerated individuals being served under the experiment so they can access postsecondary education and training programs to help them obtain employment, support their families, and avoid recidivism after reintegrating into society.

In addition, the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) provides resources specifically for correctional education.  Under Title II of WIOA, additional funding is allocated to states to advance educational opportunities to individuals in correctional institutions and other institutionalized individuals (i.e. individuals residing in facilities operated by a state mental health agency or individuals in civil confinement institutions).  WIOA expanded the allowable program components for correctional education to include integrated education and training, career pathways and transition to reentry initiatives, and other post-release services. WIOA places a priority on using funds to serve incarcerated individuals who are likely to be released within five years of participation in the program. 

ED's FY 2015 investment, the Improved Reentry Education program, seeks to demonstrate that strategic, high-quality educational and transitional assistance — provided in institutional and community settings — are critical in supporting educational attainment and reentry success for previously incarcerated individuals.  This program builds on the success from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education's (OCTAE's) fiscal year (FY) 2013 investment, entitled Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities, in which over $900,000 was awarded. In FY 2015 and FY 2016, ED awarded over $5.4 million to nine entities to continue this mission under Improved Reentry Education grants.  OCTAE's Office of Correctional Education[  6  ] will provide technical assistance to the nine grantees through a technical assistance contract with Jobs for the Future to ensure high-quality programming and supportive reentry supports for incarcerated individuals participating in the programs.

It is estimated that 40 percent of incarcerated individuals lack a high school diploma, in comparison to 19 percent of the general population over the age of 16, and 83 percent lack a postsecondary degree.[  7  ] Despite these facts, less than one quarter of incarcerated individuals participate in secondary education programs while far less participate in postsecondary programs.[  8  ] It is in our collective interest to further develop and expand correctional education programs.

In today's global economy, employment depends on 21st century skills and credentials from everyone in our workforce.  By 2020, an estimated 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary training and education.[  9  ] Equipping incarcerated individuals with these foundational skills and technical competencies will make them more employable upon reentry and increase their ability to contribute. 

Nurturing correctional education and reentry support programs is a shared societal responsibility. Investing in these initiatives saves taxpayer dollars, creates opportunities, and changes lives.  Thank you for your continued partnership and commitment to correctional education and reentry support programs.     

I invite you to read the NCES report and to use it to inform your future discussions and planning around correctional education and reentry support programs.


John B. King, Jr.


  1. Carson, Ann E. Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015.[ Return to text ]

  2. Walmsley, Roy, World Prison Population List, 11th edition (London, England: International Center for Prison Studies, 2015)[ Return to text ]

  3. Guerino, Paul, Paige M. Harrison, and William J. Sabol. Prisoners in 2010.Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice and Statistics, 2011.[ Return to text ]

  4. Davis, Lois M., Jennifer L. Steele, Robert Bozick, Malcolm Williams, Susan Turner, Jeremy N. V. Miles, Jessica Saunders and Paul S. Steinberg. How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014.[ Return to text ]

  5. Davis, xxii.[ Return to text ]

  6. ED's Office of Correctional Education is a unit within OCTAE.[ Return to text ]

  7. Crayton, A., and Neusteter, S. R.. The Current State of Correctional Education. New York: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Prisoner Reentry Institute, 2008.[ Return to text ]

  8. Crayton, A., and Neusteter, S. R.. Crayton, A., and Neusteter, S. R.[ Return to text ]

  9. Carnevale, A., Smith, N., and Strohl, J. Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, Georgetown Public Policy Institute Center on Education and the Workforce, June 2013.[ Return to text ]

Last Modified: 11/17/2016