At 17 New York Prisons, Inmates Can Now Get a Free College Education

free college education

New York was the first state in the country to announce that residents can get a free college education.

And yesterday, it made waves once more when it announced it’d be expanding that offering to inmates in 17 state prisons.

What is the College-in-Prison Reentry Program?

At the moment, only 1,000 New York prisoners — out of more than 77,000 — are enrolled in college courses, reported the New York Times. The majority of the programs that educate them are privately funded.

“These classes carry long waitlists and standardization across programs is often lacking,” stated a press release from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “These factors prevent many inmates from making significant progress toward the completion of a degree.”

To overcome these challenges, Cuomo has launched the College-in-Prison Reentry Program. It will offer a free college education to 2,500 inmates at 17 prisons over the next five years.

Courses start in September and will be taught by professors from nearby universities: Bard, Cornell, Medaille, Mercy, NYU, and the Mohawk Valley and Jefferson community colleges.

Any inmate with five years or less on their sentence is eligible for the program and could earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or certificate.

Why and how New York is offering a free college education

Cuomo introduced a similar plan in 2014, but dropped the idea after criticism from Republicans who refused to back so-called “Attica University.”

This new $7.3 million program won’t rely on public money. Instead, its funding comes from criminal asset forfeitures made by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.

These forfeitures are part of $808 million in criminal penalties Vance won from three international banks — funds which, by law, have to go toward criminal justice projects.

“It makes no sense to send someone to prison with no pathway for them to succeed when they get out,” said Vance. “Investing in college education programs is a proven, cost-effective way to break the harmful cycle of recidivism and keep our communities safe.”

Research supports that idea. “Inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not,” found a 2013 RAND Corporation study on education in prisons, the largest of its kind.

That study also estimated that for every $1 spent on prison education, $4 to $5 in incarceration costs are saved.

“Prison isn’t just about serving time for one’s crimes,” said Cuomo. “It’s an opportunity to help those who have made mistakes rehabilitate and rebuild their lives … This program not only strengthens the futures of incarcerated individuals and their communities alike, but it will save taxpayer dollars in the long run.”

What people think about the initiative

Prison-reform advocates support the idea — but some criticize its exclusion of prisoners with more than five years left on their sentence.

“This works against the ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ mentality that has dominated criminal justice policy of the last generation,” said Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing & Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.

“But the decision to exclude some long-term prisoners is a needless extension of pointless punitiveness,” he added.

Others are critical of the program altogether.

From the tweets, however, it seems like many aren’t aware of the program’s funding source, or that all New York residents can already receive a free college education.

Working toward a free college education — without prison time

Even if you live far from New York (and hopefully never go to prison), there are still ways to reduce the cost of college.

You could attend a tuition-free university. Or you could apply for scholarships, work your way through school, or attend a community college.

Although we might be a long way from a universal free college education system, that doesn’t mean you have to burden yourself with student loans. Work hard and get creative, and you could graduate college debt free.

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