This project contributes to two strands of the research on correctional education that we believe are currently underdeveloped.
First, there is relatively little evidence on the labor market benefits of educational programs. Much of the criminological research focuses on recidivism as the main outcome (Davis et al., 2014). Yet by focusing too narrowly on criminal behavior, we may miss important ways in which educational programming affects youth offenders. We argue that the need for rigorous evidence is particularly acute for interventions that target individuals who may be considered underserving of public support. For instance, tough-on-crime policies like the Higher Education Act of 1998, which made certain drug offenders ineligible for federal financial aid programs, are motivated by their potentially deterrent effects. That is, they are motivated by social benefits to non-offenders. Yet, this policy appeared to have adverse effects on offenders’ non-criminal outcomes as well (Lovenheim & Owens, 2014). As we have substantially less information about whether and how correctional education programs improve the lives of young offenders, it is difficult to form a complete assessment of their utility.
Our second research objective is to better understand how the structure of correctional education shapes outcomes for youth offenders. Correctional education encompasses a wide variety of programs, from basic skills and high school equivalency to specialized vocational training and postsecondary education. Although each of these interventions is supported by evidence from the general population, we know that the labor market functions much differently for released offenders. Employer preferences and state licensing requirements restrict job and occupational opportunities, and we have less evidence about whether employers value the skills offenders learn or the formal credentials they earn.
Finally, the correctional education programs we consider target youth with various levels of academic proficiency and there is little empirical evidence about selecting educational interventions that are appropriate to the prior academic preparation of offenders. Correctional education therefore remains something of a “black box,” which limits the ability of administrators to improve existing programs.