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Focus Area: Education

In today’s competitive workforce, educational credentials are increasingly important for securing employment, but many people who become confined in correctional facilities have low levels of educational attainment. Recognizing this deficit, many correctional institutions offer educational programs including adult basic education, high school or GED programs, college or post-secondary programs, and vocational training. Research on the degree to which these various educational programs promote reentry success can help jail and prison administrators determine how to distribute their limited resources.

Below is an overview of research on the effects of participating in educational programming on recidivism and employment outcomes post-release. Based on an extensive and systematic review of the literature on correctional educational programs, 12 studies were identified that met the eligibility criteria for methodological rigor. These studies fall into five main categories of educational interventions: life skills, Adult Basic Education (ABE), post-secondary (or college) education, GED programs, and vocational training.

What the Research Says about Education Programs

Out of the twelve correctional education studies that met criteria for methodological rigor, three examined the effects of GED programs, one evaluated an ABE program, three evaluated post-secondary education programs, two evaluated a life skills program, and four examined the effects of vocational training programs. Each of the studies on post-secondary programs demonstrated strong effectiveness in reducing recidivism. More modest effects were observed for the ABE program in comparison. The three studies of GED programs and two studies of life skills programs indicated no difference between those who participated in these programs and those who did not.

Findings from the vocational training studies were mixed and suggest that the quality of program implementation may be important for achieving reductions in recidivism. One of the four studies of vocational training programs that met eligibility criteria found evidence that these programs were successful in improving post-release outcomes. This study evaluated an in-prison program in Queensland, Australia, that offered certificates in fields such as business, computer skills, visual arts, construction, engineering, medical services, and hospitality. Participants were placed into the program on the basis of risk/needs assessments. The researchers found that a significantly smaller proportion of program participants recidivated, relative to a comparison group of non-participants.

Of the remaining three studies of vocational training programs, two evaluations of the Sandhills Vocational Delivery System and vocational training programs offered by the Florida Department of Corrections found that participating in that vocational training program had no effect on either recidivism or employment outcomes. The final study investigated the effectiveness of vocational programs provided by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and found modest evidence that program participation reduced, rather than increased, the likelihood of post-release employment. Overall, the findings on vocational training programs suggest that such programs can be effective in improving recidivism outcomes, but the quality of program implementation appears to be important for achieving reductions in recidivism.

Future Areas of Research

Our review of the body of research on the effectiveness of correctional education yielded only a handful of studies that met the criteria for methodological rigor. Almost 90% of relevant studies were excluded due to a lack of rigor. The primary reason was that the studies compared individuals who successfully completed a correctional program with individuals who did not participate in the program or who did participate but did not complete the program. This approach introduces selection bias, since individuals who completed a program may have characteristics, such as motivation to succeed, that differ from those of the comparison group. Several other studies included all program participants (including dropouts) in their analyses, yet did not take sufficient measures to ensure that the treatment and comparison groups were similar enough to allow meaningful comparisons to be made.

Given the dearth of rigorous studies in this topic area, further research is needed in all five of the intervention areas discussed above. Additionally, of the twelve studies that were reviewed, most focused on male populations and did not provide information about the recidivism risk level of their samples. Future research should evaluate the effectiveness of correctional education programs with both men and women and should examine whether the effects of such programs differ based on recidivism risk.

Summary of Evaluations and Outcomes

Rigor Evaluation Recidivism Employment Substance Abuse
Basic Rigor Blackburn, F.S. 1979; 1981 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Callan & Gardner 2005; 2007 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Cho & Tyler 2008 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Clark & Duwe, 2015 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Duwe & Clark, 2014 (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Johnson 1984 (1) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Lattimore et al. 1998; 1990 (not evaluated)
High Rigor Melton & Pennell 1998 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Sabol 2007 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Tyler & Kling 2006 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Winterfield et al. 2009 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Zgoba, Haugebrook, & Jenkins 2008 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)

Programs