For individuals previously incarcerated, earning a college degree can be one of the best ways to move forward and decrease their odds of returning to prison.

While pursuing higher education after incarceration may have a few extra steps and restrictions, it’s far from impossible and can be well worth the effort. Besides lowering recidivism rates, having a college degree increases earning potential and employment rates. Focusing on learning new skills and preparing for a career can also help formerly incarcerated individuals develop purpose and structure in their post-incarceration lives.

This guide will review the various post-secondary education options available to formerly incarcerated individuals, how to select and apply for a college degree program, and the restrictions individuals should be aware of if they have a criminal record.

Educational Options for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

The type of education a formerly incarcerated individual pursues after their release depends on where they were in their educational journey when they were incarcerated. Below are different options based on different education levels and experiences.

Earn your GED

Students who did not earn a high school diploma before incarceration will want to restart their educational journey by taking the General Educational Development (GED) Test. This series of four exams allows students without a high school diploma to demonstrate their knowledge in mathematical reasoning, science, social studies, and reasoning through language arts. A GED is equivalent to a high school diploma, allowing students to pursue more educational and job opportunities. There are various ways to prepare for the GED, including classes, practice exams, and interactive flashcards. Many prisons also have programs where inmates can study for and earn their GED while incarcerated.

Apply as a first-time student

You’re considered a first-time freshman if you have a high school diploma or a GED but never attended college. Students in this category can apply for undergraduate degrees, including two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees. The application for first-time freshmen typically requires a completed application and fee, official high school transcripts, a high school diploma or GED, an essay, and letters of recommendation. Applicants should find out if the school they’re applying to requires standardized test scores and make arrangements to take the SAT or ACT if necessary.

Finish your degree

Students whose college education was interrupted by their incarceration have two options. They can return to their previous school or transfer to a different college. Re-enrollment policies vary by school, so if you’re considering returning to the school you attended before incarceration, contact their registrar’s office for more information. Students who missed more than two consecutive semesters must apply for re-admission at many schools. A student’s conviction record may also impact their ability to return to a school or program.

Students who want to switch to a different school or finish their degree after earning college credits while incarcerated must apply to the new institution as a transfer student. These applicants must submit official transcripts from other schools or college programs they attended as part of their application, which allows the new college to evaluate and award credit for previously completed coursework.

Continue your education

Students who earned an associate or bachelor’s degree before incarceration or while incarcerated as part of a prison education program can continue their education with a graduate degree or certificate. As these are advanced degrees, application, and eligibility requirements may be more rigorous. Students must demonstrate a minimum undergraduate GPA, prerequisite coursework, or professional experience. The application process may also include additional steps, like an interview. Many graduate degrees lead to careers that require state licenses and background checks, which can be obstacles for students with criminal records. Be sure to research requirements and restrictions for all programs and career paths you’re considering, and consult with an admissions counselor or program representative if you have questions about your eligibility.

How to Apply to College After Incarceration

Step 1: Choose your area of study

The first step to pursue postsecondary education after incarceration is to establish what you want to study. Selecting an area of study gives you a starting point for researching schools and programs.

Students who aren’t sure what they want to study can use tools like Minnesota State’s Career Planning for People with a Criminal Conviction to help them explore career options and determine what fields suit their interests and aptitudes.

It’s also essential for formerly incarcerated students to remember that, depending on the type of crime they were convicted of, they may be restricted from entering a particular profession or holding specific jobs within an industry. For example, most jobs in education and childcare, banking and finance, and healthcare require criminal background checks. As a result, post-secondary programs in these fields often won’t accept students with a criminal record.

However, restrictions can vary based on several factors, and there may be opportunities within these fields specifically for individuals with criminal records. Consult with program representatives and professionals working in the area before eliminating any potential career paths that interest you.

Now is also an excellent time to establish other parameters for what you want from a college degree program. Will you enroll full-time or part-time? Do you want to attend school in person or online? Be mindful of any relocation or travel restrictions you may have due to parole terms.

Step 2: Research colleges and programs

With your criteria, you can learn more about schools and programs that meet your needs.

Students should always check the accreditation status of any schools they’re considering. Accreditation status can affect the quality of education students receive, their financial aid eligibility, and future employment and educational opportunities. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) maintains a database where students can search for accredited schools and programs.

Also, explore the support services the institution offers, including those specifically for formerly incarcerated individuals. College support services typically include tutoring, mental health counseling, academic and career advising, technical support, and more. You should also find out the school’s policies regarding admitting previously incarcerated students, as this can vary by institution.

The most convenient way to research schools and programs is by visiting their website, where most schools publish information about program curriculums, faculty, eligibility requirements, financial aid, and campus life. Students can also learn more by contacting the school’s admissions office, following the school on social media, and attending in-person or virtual open houses and information sessions, where available.

Step 3: Prepare and submit applications

Once you’ve identified the school(s) that meet your needs, you can begin submitting your applications.

Exact application procedures and requirements vary by individual school and are also impacted by the degree level (undergraduate or graduate) a student seeks. However, most applications require some combination of these documents:

  • Completed application and fee
  • Official transcripts from high school and previously attended college programs (if applicable)
  • Letter(s) of recommendation
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, GRE)
  • Resume

It’s common for college applications to include a question regarding the applicant’s criminal background, although some individual schools and states have moved away from the practice. If you’re required to answer any questions about your criminal record, answer them truthfully. Being incarcerated may not automatically disqualify a student from being accepted, but in many cases, lying on an application will.

Formerly incarcerated students may have to complete extra steps in the application process, such as participating in interviews or providing statements from parole officers and character references, as most schools review these applicants on a case-by-case basis. Students can also choose to address their incarceration in personal statements or letters of recommendation, although this isn’t required. Navigating how much information to disclose and when is a highly personal process. Working with an independent college admissions counselor can help determine how you address this part of your life, especially in the context of your life.

Step 4: Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

Throughout the research process, collect information from the schools you’re considering regarding their tuition costs and available financial aid options.

Financial aid comes in two forms — need-based and merit-based. Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered for need-based aid. Schools use the information from this application to determine eligibility for need-based aid like student loans, grants, and work-study through the Federal Student Aid (FSA) program.

Most formerly incarcerated students are eligible for need-based financial aid through the FSA program. Students preparing to exit incarceration may even be able to apply for assistance before their release, to facilitate a smoother transition into a higher education program. Individuals who were convicted of a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense and are subject to an involuntary civil commitment upon completion of a period of incarceration for that offense aren’t eligible for certain types of federal financial aid.

Institutions and external organizations also offer merit-based aid to students with specific achievements and aptitudes. Merit-based aid includes scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Some schools may offer scholarships or grants specifically for students pursuing post-secondary education after incarceration. Contact your school’s financial aid office to learn more about available scholarship opportunities. Find out if your employer offers tuition assistance benefits if you’re already employed.

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Alternative Educational Paths

Earning a college degree isn’t the only way formerly incarcerated individuals can develop skills to further their careers. Here are some alternative educational paths for students to explore.

Government work programs

To encourage employers to hire individuals with prior convictions and help them learn new job skills, the federal government provides tax credits and other financial benefits to businesses willing to hire people with conviction records. You can use the Federal Bonding Program website to find participating employers in your area.

Trade or vocational school

Another option is trade or vocational schools, which focus on providing training for a specific skilled job. Common areas of study at trade schools include fire science, culinary arts, and auto repair. Although some trades have restrictions that impact formerly incarcerated individuals, many do not and are welcoming to individuals with this background. Earning a diploma or certificate from a trade school also typically takes one to two years, less time than earning a college degree.

Boot camps

Workers in the software development industry are highly in demand and well-compensated. Online coding bootcamps allow students to learn the skills necessary for these jobs in just a few months from wherever they’re located. Many bootcamps offer scholarships; some, like Coding Dojo, may have financial support programs for previously incarcerated individuals.

Advocacy Programs and Resources for People with Conviction Records Returning to School

The following resources can also provide valuable information for furthering your education and other issues affecting people with conviction records.

CareerOneStop State Resource Finder

This free directory, which the U.S. Department of Labor maintains, helps individuals find housing, food assistance, and other services in their state. It also has a job search tool to help ex-offenders find employment opportunities.

Restoration of Rights Project

In addition to federal laws, many regulations regarding people with prior convictions are set at the state level. The Restoration of Rights Project provides a state-by-state breakdown to help individuals understand the employment, licensing, and housing laws that may apply to them.

Volunteers of America

This nationwide organization was founded in 1896 to help previously incarcerated individuals transition from prison to a productive life in their community. Its services include literacy training, housing assistance, and inpatient substance abuse treatment programs.

Apprenticeships provide individuals with a paid job and training that they can use to advance their careers. The Office of Apprenticeship is a federal government agency that helps companies and organizations develop and promote apprenticeship opportunities. Students can use their website to learn more about apprenticeships, train for a career, and find apprenticeship opportunities in their area.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.