The Incarcerated Student’s Guide To Enrolling In College From Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

Enrolling in college from prison is no easy task.  There is the lack of viable information to overcome.  There is also the lack of accessible methods of communications to overcome, too.  And, sadly, there is also the lack of informed college enrollment personnel to help the incarcerated student navigate the sometimes troublesome waters of enrollment in college from prison.  But fear not: here is an easy-to-understand guide which presents the seven steps to enrolling in college from prison.  Image courtesy

1) Locate a Resource Which Profiles College Correspondence Programs

There are currently three texts in the field of prison education reference which fulfill this need.  The most popular is probably the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada (3rd Edition) by Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D. (Prison Legal News, 2009).  Another title in this field is College in Prison by Bruce Michaels.  “College in Prison” is a good text, but I feel Dr. Taylor’s is probably the better of the two since it profiles many more correspondence programs and is better established.  The final prison education reference text which profiles correspondence courses for prisoners is my own work, Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012). 

2) Verify the Accreditation Status of the College Correspondence Program

When perusing these prison education reference texts, the incarcerated student will find a number of fields contained within each correspondence program’s profile.  One of these fields deals with accreditation.  Simply put, accreditation is the status of being approved by a body which ascertains the quality of an academic program.  Hence, proper accreditation equates to not only a quality educational experience, but also dictates if other schools will accept credits gained at a particular school and if the degree awarded will be accepted by a professional body.

The gold standard of accreditation is accreditation by one of the six regional accreditation agencies which are approved by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).  The six regional accreditation agencies are as follows:

     ~Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools

     ~New England Association of Schools and Colleges

     ~North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

     ~Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

     ~Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

     ~Western Association of Schools and Colleges

One legitimate accreditation agency which warrants discussion is the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).  The DETC is an accreditation agency which accredits educational programs which offer courses through distance learning (either via postal mail or the internet).  They are approved by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).  The problem is that while they are a legitimate accreditation agency, and, due to their mission a friend to the incarcerated student, they are not one of the six regional accreditation bodies.  As such, credits and degrees earned through a school which is accredited by the DETC, but not additionally accredited by one of the six regional accreditation agencies, might very well not transfer to another school or be recognized by a professional body.  This can be problematic from a prestige standpoint and a professional certification perspective.

The short, and correct, answer here is for the incarcerated student to take courses from a college which is regionally accredited.

3) Review the Correspondence Program’s Course and Degree Offerings

The aforementioned prison education reference texts also contain a field in each college profile concerning course and degree offerings.  The incarcerated student will find information about the various levels of degrees offered (i.e., certificate, diploma, associates, bachelors, masters, and doctorate) and actual degrees offered from the school via correspondence study.  Likewise, in the course offerings field, a list of either the exact courses offered or the topical area and the number of courses offered will be presented.

The point of reviewing course and degree offerings is twofold: the prisoner-student wants to ensure that the school in question offers a degree program which they are interested in, and they want to ensure that enough correspondence courses are offered to warrant enrollment in the program.  Three programs which we at recommend are Upper Iowa University, Adams State College, and, as indicated below, Ohio University.  These three programs are well-established, reputable, regionally accredited, and offer a good selection of degree and course offerings.

4) Check Media Restrictions with Correspondence Program and Prison System

Another field contained in the correspondence program profiles, which is often overlooked by incarcerated students, is that of media restrictions/media components.  Some correspondence education programs offer courses which require the incarcerated student to possess a CD/DVD/VHS/audio tape player, a video recorder, or to have access to a computer which can operate CD-ROMs.  Each prison system is different, has different restrictions, and allows prisoner-students to use or not use different types of media.  As such, it is important to ascertain if the correspondence program in question can even be completed by a particular incarcerated student due to media restrictions.  In both the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook by Dr. Taylor and my Education Behind Bars text, we indicate whether there are media requirements and provide a description thereof.

5) Write the College for More Information

Once a correspondence education program has been evaluated and deemed to be favorable, it’s time to write for more information.  One of the handy features of Dr. Taylor’s text and that of my own is that we include all available contact information for every correspondence education program profiled.  At a minimum, this means a postal mailing address.  Many include multiple phone numbers, email addresses, and web addresses.

This letter can be a simple inquiry one.  The incarcerated student should state that they read about the school’s correspondence education program — which prisoners can enroll in — in the respective prison education reference text, and state what level of studies they are interested in (i.e., vocational, undergraduate, or graduate).  They should request a copy of the school’s correspondence course catalog, and any additional information which can be provided concerning the school’s correspondence education program.  In three weeks to a month, the incarcerated student should have received the requested materials from schools where inquiries were made.  If not, then a follow-up letter can’t hurt.

6) Speak to Prison’s Education Department

With correspondence education program materials in hand — and a school which the prisoner-student wants to attend selected — the incarcerated student should then approach their prison’s Education Department.  Here they should look for someone who has the collateral duty of being the “College Coordinator” or the “Correspondence Course Coordinator.”  Most prisons have a staff member whose job it is to assist incarcerated students in enrolling and completing correspondence education courses.  If there appears to be no one available to assist the student, they should go to open house at the Education Department and ask to speak with a supervisor.  The supervisor should then be able to point the incarcerated student in the right direction.

When meeting with the prison staff member who handles correspondence education matters, the incarcerated students should have all of the materials handy and their line of inquiry in mind.  They should explain that they desire to enroll in college (or another level of correspondence education), already possess a GED or high school diploma, and have already selected the program which they desire to enroll in.  After these basics are out of the way, the prisoner-student should inquire as to what — if any — authorization forms are required in order to enroll in college and receive coursework.  Some prison systems require incarcerated students to receive an authorization for each and every incoming course, while others only require the inmate student to be added to a list of those authorized to receive course materials from specific schools.

7) Enroll in College

After a correspondence education program has been selected, and any required authorizations granted, the incarcerated student is then ready to enroll in the correspondence education program.  Most college correspondence programs require an application to be completed and submitted.  Most also require an admission application or course enrollment fee to be paid (this can sometimes be waived if it is mentioned that the student is incarcerated, if not, they should expect to send along a $15-$35 check).  It should be noted that almost all colleges and universities will waive SAT, ACT, and GRE testing requirements for incarcerated students.

After application is made, the school should respond with the formal enrollment packet.  This usually includes a list of available courses and information concerning each course.  Also enclosed will be a number of course order/enrollment forms.  These forms will be used to order each individual course.  Payment can either be submitted with the course order form, or, can be submitted separately, but must be paid prior to the course being sent to the prisoner-student.  Established correspondence education programs, which regularly send courses to inmates, have a special area on the course order form where the incarcerated student can place their benefactor’s contact information.  This way, upon receipt of the course order form, the benefactor will be sent an invoice from the school.  Once the invoice is paid, the course will then be sent to the inmate student.

At this point, it is up to the incarcerated student to complete their lessons, submit them, take any required proctored examinations (which are proctored by their prison’s Education Department staff), and order new courses.

Enrolling in college from prison is not the easiest task in the world.  But it is not impossible.  With the information concerning correspondence education program offerings in front of them, the incarcerated student can most certainly get to work on finding and enrolling in a college correspondence course or program.  The key is in showing them the right path forward, providing them with the information required to make informed decisions, and in supporting them as they engage in their coursework.  At the other end, correctional educators need to help their students succeed in both studies and in life.  By providing students with these tools, prison educators can watch their students grow into something truly spectacular.


Editorial Note: supports the correspondence programs offered from Upper Iowa University, Adams State University, and Ohio University, though, we have had a few complaints concerning Ohio University’s level and quality of customer service.


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