Joint Study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and The Opportunity Institute: California Leads the Nation in College Opportunities for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Students

The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and The Opportunity Institute today released a joint study showing that California leads the nation in providing high-quality college opportunities to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. According to the study, by the fall of 2017, almost 4,500 incarcerated students in California were enrolled in face-to-face community college classes in 34 of the state’s 35 prisons – more than in any other state – with hundreds more waiting to enroll. In sharp contrast, in 2014 only one prison had a college program through a private university and no students were enrolled in face-to-face community college inside the state’s prisons.

Thousands of formerly incarcerated students are also attending the University of California (UC), California State University (CSU), and California community colleges. A third of the state’s 114 community colleges and CSU campuses now have student groups or support programs for formerly incarcerated students, with students throughout the state confronting the stigma of incarceration and advocating for a second chance through California’s public colleges and universities.

“I was more scared to walk onto a college campus than onto any prison yard, but I was lucky to have a mentor who connected me with other students who had been incarcerated,” said Spencer Layman, who graduated from San Bernardino Valley College and now works as a substance abuse counselor. “Some people will say that my success makes me an exception, but I am not. There are thousands of men and women just like me who can and want to turn their lives around. We just need to give them an opportunity to succeed.”

The study finds that California’s exponential growth is a result of three state policies that could be replicated nationally:

  • In 2014, Governor Brown signed a law allowing community colleges to offer face-to-face courses inside state prison and to be compensated for teaching incarcerated students just as if they were on campus.
  • California’s public colleges and universities have no undergraduate admissions barriers for students who have been in the criminal justice system.
  • Low-income incarcerated students are eligible for the California College Promise Grant just like any other student in the state, which covers community college tuition. But California is the exception. Nationally, incarcerated students are ineligible for Pell Grants unless their college is one of 67 that participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. California’s experiences show what the rest of the nation could accomplish if the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students is lifted.

“In just three short years, California has built a new generation of college students and graduates, creating onramps to redemption and prosperity for thousands. Early data shows that incarcerated students are doing as well as or better than their on-campus counterparts, including earning higher grades,” said Debbie Mukamal, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and co-author of the report.

Go to “Don’t Stop Now: California Leads the Nation in Using Public Higher Education to Address Mass Incarceration. Will We Continue?” at

The website features short video clips of state education and corrections leaders, college presidents, faculty and staff running programs, and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.

“We can’t stop now. We owe it to ourselves and to those who are changing their lives to make sure that degree pathways in our public colleges and universities remain open to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students into the future,” said Rebecca Silbert, Senior Fellow at The Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, and co-author of the report.

About Corrections to College California

Corrections to College California is a project of Renewing Communities, a four-year initiative designed to build a network of bridges from corrections to college in California. Renewing Communities is a joint initiative of The Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. It is supported by 13 state and national foundations and groups, including Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, ECMC Foundation, Ford Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, The Ballmer Group, The California Wellness Foundation, The California Endowment, Weingart Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The Art for Justice Fund.

About the Stanford Criminal Justice Center
Founded in 2005, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC) serves as a research and policy institute on issues related to the criminal justice system. Its efforts are geared both towards generating policy research for the public sector, as well as providing pedagogical opportunities to Stanford Law School students with academic or careers in interests in criminal law and crime policy. SCJC is led by Faculty Co-Directors Professors Joan Petersilia, David Sklansky, and Robert Weisberg, and Executive Director Debbie Mukamal.

About Stanford Law School
Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.

About The Opportunity Institute
The Opportunity Institute is a nonprofit organization that promotes social mobility and equity by improving outcomes from early childhood through early career. It focuses on education, which plays a critical role in opening opportunities, and the related social policies that make true opportunity possible. The Opportunity Institute brings together leaders in early childhood development, PreK through 12 education, juvenile and criminal justice, and higher education to collaborate across policy sectors for broader and deeper impact.

Contact: Margot Friedman at or 202-332-5550

Stanford Law School Contact: Stephanie Ashe at or 650-723-2232

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