The truth is that online prison education programs are hard to come by. When putting this article together, we felt sure that there must be some courses out there designed specifically for you as an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individual. We’ve scoured the internet, search engines, college websites, and more in search of online distance learning that caters to those with limited or heavily-restricted internet access. However, finding such programs is next to impossible, even in an age where the internet is everywhere.
The good news is that there is a vast range of online bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, certificates, and other qualifications that you can study online, offered by institutions across the U.S. As a formerly incarcerated prospective student, you’ll be able to access these courses like any other student. But if you’re incarcerated, whether you can access these courses will heavily depend on the correctional institution that you’re housed in and their policy toward internet use on-site.
So, we’ve taken a slightly different angle. Below, you’ll find a little background information to help you understand the country’s attitude towards internet use in prisons and why accessing online courses is very difficult—as well as some positive news on how this attitude is slowly changing. You’ll also find a list of some of the top distance learning institutions in the country, as well as a breakdown of the best industries for finding meaningful employment after release from prison. If you’re looking to start over and build a career, then studying in one of these fields can start you off on the right foot.
Internet Access Inside Correctional Facilities
Until recent years, internet access inside of U.S. correctional facilities was practically non-existent. Compared to other countries, some of which allow inmates to go online for varying reasons, the U.S. has always been relatively strict, disallowing the internet even for educational purposes.
In February of 2009, the Federal Bureau of Prisons implemented something known as the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System, or TRULINCS. Through TRULINCS, inmates have a very basic form of email that they may use to communicate with those outside of prison, such as friends or family, and all messages are monitored. However, it is a very basic system that doesn’t cater to educational courses.
As of 2020, the use of the internet within a correctional facility has been approved in 49 U.S. state correctional systems under heavy supervision. With the exception of Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, and Nevada, the remaining states may utilize the internet to deliver inmate education programs. Despite this, according to a government report, as of 2015 only 14 percent of prisons allow restricted direct internet access for their incarcerated students. This is a huge obstacle for anyone wanting to take part in an online education program.
So, the question is, is it even possible for incarcerated inmates to use online prison education programs? There is no straightforward answer; this will depend on the college that you’d like to study with, as well as the policy of your correctional facility and their attitude towards internet access.
Changing Attitudes Toward Internet in Prisons
Corrections facilities and colleges are increasingly challenging this status quo and turning to online courses for incarcerated students who previously would’ve had to rely on internal classes or correspondence courses—where course materials are sent via mail—to get an education whilst serving a sentence.
For example, one university in Mexico, the Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), has been allowing inmates to take online courses for around a decade now. Interested inmates who are incarcerated in one of nine New Mexico correctional facilities can access the university’s blackboard website using a heavily-restricted prison computer. The computer uses a specialized web browser that prevents users from being able to access any other website than the blackboard, meaning there’s no risk of illegal or prohibited activity taking place.
Additionally, using a Restricted Internet Connection, or RIC, an organization called Jail Education Solutions (JES) has partnered with the U.S. city of Philadelphia to run a pilot program that provides tablet computers to incarcerated students in a select group of secure correctional facilities. Using this technology, the partnership has begun using JES resources to provide post-secondary education and vocational courses to inmates, including literacy, social sciences, and financial education.
Then there’s an organization known as the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA), who has begun implementing online educational resources and college programs in juvenile facilities based in Oregon. The OYA place emphasis on self-paced learning using computer-assisted software programs that are supervised by a teacher or other person.
The bottom line is that although attitudes toward online education in prisons is changing, finding any kind of online course that is designed for inmates or accessible from correctional facilities is incredibly difficult. If your prison restricts internet access entirely, then you won’t be able to take part in an online course. So instead, we’ve listed some of the best online colleges for people who want to earn a degree through internet-based distance learning. Each school offers a range of programs that will allow you to start building your career in a field of your choosing.
As long as you can source funding—either from the government, a private institution, or your own funds—then you can apply to these schools, provided that you will be able to access the required resources from your facility. It’s always worth asking before you apply. Of course, these courses are also suited to anybody who was recently incarcerated but has since been released.
The Best Online Course Providers
According to the Guide to Online Schools, these are the top 10 colleges to choose if you’re looking to study for an online bachelor’s degree. The data was put together using data that took into account alumni salaries and tuition fee costs.
1. The George Washington University
Based in Washington D.C., George Washington University offers courses both online and offline. The online selection available features more than 90 online degrees, comprised of 12 bachelor’s degrees, 70 master’s degrees and 11 doctorates. They also offer 41 different certifications through their online program. Students can study in the arts, education, nursing and medicine, and business.
2. University of Virginia
Online learning at the University of Iowa is delivered through the school’s specialized platform, UVACollab. It’s an intuitive system that doesn’t act as a barrier to those less familiar with modern technology and the internet. While students can study toward a bachelor’s degree, where the University of Virginia excels is in the provision of a huge range of certificates in subjects such as management, accounting, and security. With a graduate tuition of just $8,115, it’s also the cheapest university on our list by a wide margin.
3. University of Massachusetts-Lowell
The University of Massachusetts has a broad selection of certificate and degree programs available to study online. In addition to the 18 bachelor’s degrees available, there are 30 master’s degrees and 29 certificates in the prospectus. Through the custom UMass platform, students have over 1,400 courses available through their online portal, some of which are exclusive to this university.
4. Florida Institute of Technology
What makes the Florida Institute of Technology great is that it’s comprised of four different colleges, each specializing in a particular area of study. These are the College of Aeronautics, the College of Engineering and Science, the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts, and the Nathan Bisk College of Business. Between these four colleges, the institution offers one of the broadest selections of master’s degrees available online, with 43 different programs. There are also 16 bachelor’s degrees, though students may only study in a single doctorate program in aviation.
5. Golden Gate University
Most of the programs available at Golden Gate University, in California, are delivered online. At Golden Gate however, students can essentially create their own course by combining different programs together. The university specializes in four different areas predominantly: public administration, accounting, taxation and business. This makes the institution a strong choice for those wanting to enter the field of financial management, marketing, accounting, and logistics.
6. Oregon State University
Oregon State University has two separate campuses in its home state, but for online students there are over 1,300 different classes to choose from. They offer a broad selection of over 100 different bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and certificates. In terms of specialization, students may study in programs grounded in the arts and sciences, or foreign languages. In terms of master’s programs, students can study toward some highly-specialized roles, including those relating to climate change and sustainability.
7. Rutgers University
Rutgers University is the eighth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, actually older than the United States itself. Students who join one of its online courses are promised the exact same coursework, teaching staff, and interaction with fellow peers as those students who study on-campus. However, distance learning means being able to study at your own pace. While the university only offers 11 bachelor’s degrees online, the master’s program is strong; students have a choice from 53 programs that focus on business, marketing, education, and healthcare.
8. DePaul University
DePaul is a religious institution, but accepts students of any faith or background. Online study is limited to small groups, meaning every student can receive personalized assistance from their professor. With more than 50 master’s degrees available, DePaul focuses on areas like computer science, accounting, healthcare, and public administration.
9. University of Minnesota Digital Campus
The Digital Campus is a branch of the University of Minnesota. While its online course offering is fairly small, with 18 bachelor’s degrees, 11 master’s programs, and 21 certificates, the online course delivery is of a high standard. Online students typically receive instruction from the same professors as those who are studying on-campus, with the same curriculums and course requirements. Tuition is at the higher end of the scale, standing at around $15,878 for a graduate degree.
10. Drexel University
Drexel University has by far the largest selection of master’s degrees out of these 10 universities, with more than 200 online courses to choose from. Similarly, the availability of certificates is abundant, with more than 90 at your disposal. Degree programs at Drexel focus on career-driven studies, including construction, medical, educational, and business specializations. Thanks to the university’s many corporate and community partnerships, students may also receive help in getting on the first step on the ladder in their chosen career.
The Best Online Degree Programs for Building a Career
Once you’ve narrowed down the prospective list of online colleges that you’d be interested in studying with, you’ll want to decide on the best course for you. If you’re still on the fence, we’ve also listed some of the top course types available to study online. We’ve chosen these areas because they’re all growing fields that report strong earning potential through the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Finance is a field in which there will always be a demand for qualified professionals. Once qualified, you might be managing an investment portfolio, producing forecasts, or managing a company budget. According to payscale, the average salary for a financial manager stands at around $90,773, whereas a financial analyst earlier in their career might earn an average of $60,286. Senior positions might see you leading a team within the financial industry.
With the university’s strong emphasis on courses relating to accounting, taxation, and business, Golden Gate University would be a good choice for any prospective students wanting to enter the field of finance. Their Bachelor of Science in business and Master of Science in business administration both have a finance concentration.
Hospitality offers some of the most varied career choices available, with graduates moving into areas like hotel management, catering, restaurant management, and social care. There’s also a great deal of job stability; according to BLS statistics from May 2017, the job openings for the entire private sector stood at 5.1 million, or 4%, while for hospitality the figures stood at 5%.
The hours are typically more flexible than you’ll find in other industries. If you have some experience in the hospitality industry already, then earning an online degree can help get your foot in the door for more senior responsibility. Salaries can vary depending on the wide number of positions available, but BLS statistics show that hotel managers and food service managers earned an average of around $53,390 and $54,240 annually in 2018.
One of the most popular choices when it comes to earning an online degree, thanks to the high degree of versatility in career choice, business administration looks at the fundamental way in which businesses operate. Students can specialize in greater depth, focusing on human resources, finance, management, operations, and more. The broad spectrum of study means that students can move into varied careers, such as senior business management, marketing, and financial management. In terms of earning potential and career growth, the BLS reported individuals working in business operations earned a median salary of between $60,000 and $82,000 according to data from 2015. There was also a strong projection in new positions opening in subsequent years, increasing job stability.
Rutgers University offers an online Bachelor of Arts in business administration with a master’s degree also available for those who wish to study further. Students report positively on the university’s approach to online learning, particularly due to the fact that its online courses closely mirror those of students studying on-campus.
For creative minds, a marketing degree can be the perfect choice. Companies rely on marketing to launch their products and generate public interest in goods and services. Marketing professionals work on the plan and materials required to drive these activities. You’ll study demographics, research methodology, and analysis techniques, employing these skills in your day-to-day job. BLS statistics show that a market research analyst earned around $63,120 in 2018, with a marketing manager taking home an average of $132,620.
Rutgers and Golden Gate University are both strong choices for students who want to enter a career in marketing. For example, the Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University gives students skills such as defining public problems and analysing qualitative and quantitative data, skills that are invaluable in this industry.
Health Education revolves around educating society to lead healthier lives by improving attitudes and lifestyles. Some of the most commonly-available opportunities are working in healthcare facilities and local governments. According to the BLS, the median annual income for a health educator stands at around $46,080. Employment rates are expected to rise by 11% between 2018 and 2028.
The University of Florida’s Bachelor of Science in health education and behavior program was ranked as the best online course in health education by thebestschools.org. The course curriculum places a heavy focus on anatomy, nutrition, biology, and more, setting students in good stead to fully understand the human physiology and how lifestyle choices can influence our health and lifespans.
Obtaining a degree in Accounting hands you long-term job stability that’s hard to rival. According to the BLS, the industry growth rate looks set to rise to around 13.1% by the year 2022. Depending on the company you end up working for, you might be working in bookkeeping, tax management, or human resources payroll. Accountants took home an average salary of around $70,500 in 2018.
Healthcare administration courses are on the rise as the demand for qualified administrators increases in the healthcare industry. Combining your knowledge of medical practice with business knowledge, you’ll handle paperwork and processes within a medical environment. This type of degree could lead to a role as a medical or health services manager, which paid an average of $99,730 in 2018.
Many jobs in healthcare can be obtained without college-level study, but a bachelor’s degree is required to work in healthcare administration. Colorado State University’s online bachelor’s in healthcare administration will teach you how to implement service plans, manage complex medical practices, and understand medical law and regulation.
Computer Science is one industry in which you’re essentially guaranteed job security. The demand for skilled developers is increasing as quickly as the technology behind the industry. There’s less scope for branching out in the career, as most positions rely on the same type of skills but might use different programming languages. You may become a network architect, programmer, or web developer. Compensation is typically high for professionals in this field, with software developers earning an average salary of around $105,590 in 2018 according to the BLS. Web developers earned less at around $69,430 annually, though the position is still in high demand.
With the increased global focus on the environment and what we can do to protect it, careers in green and renewable energy are in-demand. Qualifying in this area could see you working as an environmental scientist, earning an average salary of $71,130, according to BLS statistics.
Thanks to Oregon State University’s highly-specialized master’s programs, students might wish to pursue a master’s program like the professional master’s in environmental sciences, or study towards a certificate instead, such as the sustainable natural resources or forests and climate change graduate certificates.
Engineering can be more difficult to get into as a career, as you require in-depth knowledge of physics and mathematics. Qualified engineers work on the construction and maintenance of major infrastructure, like roads, buildings, and even military installations. The BLS provides a comprehensive breakdown of some of the major engineering specializations and the kinds of salaries that you could achieve within each. Common specializations include civil engineers, who earn an average of $86,640, and electrical engineers, earning around $64,330.
Drexel University specializes in career-driven studies, which would be invaluable if aiming for a career as ambitious as this. For example, students can choose from a selection of 20 graduate certificates and master’s degrees in engineer alone, such as the graduate certificate in engineering management and MS in electrical engineering.
Project management degrees prepare you with the skills necessary to oversee large, transformational projects. But if you aren’t set on a particular field yet, the good news is that most industries require a project manager at some point. These skills can be applied to construction, engineering, design, financial services, healthcare, and many more industries.
Project management typically attracts higher salaries than many other industries too; in fact, this is true for most management-level positions. Construction project managers can expect an average salary of around $93,370, for example. According to PayScale, the project salary range for project managers is around $80,000 to $140,000.
Drexel University’s MS in project management is aligned with the internationally-recognized Project Management Institute’s guide, ‘A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge’. It’s also approved by the Project Management Institute as a Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.). This status means that the institution is authorized to issue professional development units needed to meet the education requirements needed by PMI credential holders.
Degrees in education typically prepare prospective students to become the teachers of today’s youth. It’s a good choice for those who like working with people, particularly the young, and influencing and educating others. The industry offers lower salaries than some of the above occupations, but the work can be highly rewarding. The BLS highlighted an average salary of $58,600 for middle school teachers in 2018, with high school teachers earning slightly more at $60,320.
Drexel University has one of the biggest selections of master’s degrees available for online distance learning. For anyone who’s seriously considering further study after their bachelor’s degree, the institution is a good choice because of its focus on career-driven studies, including education. You can choose from around 50 different programs specifically in education alone, including master’s degrees, certificates, and even the TESL (teaching english as a second language).
Human resource (HR) work requires an understanding of employment law, salaries, recruitment, training, and more. Large and growing companies require HR departments to manage their workforce and ensure that they comply with healthcare and workplace regulations. A trained and qualified human resources manager can expect to earn an average salary of $113,000 per year according to the BLS.
LeTourneau University’s School of Business offers the online Bachelor of Business Administration in human resource management. Students will study both the theory of human resources management, as well as how it is applied in practice.
A degree in criminal justice is often confused with a degree in law, but this type of degree will not lead to a profession as a lawyer; rather, you might work in law enforcement, research, or data analysis. You may become a legal assistant or paralegal, a police officer, or probation officer. According to 2018 BLS statistics, a police officer earned an average salary of $63,380 and a probation officer $53,020.
While not one of the universities on our list above, Florida State University’s Office of Distance Learning is a strong choice for criminal justice. Their college of criminology and criminal justice provides a well-rated online bachelor’s degree in criminology that prepares students for employment within law enforcement or other fields of work.
Video Game Design, Animation and Graphic Design
The video game industry is huge and constantly growing in line with both its audience and the development of new gaming technology like virtual reality (VR). According to the BLS, the demand for video game designers will increase by 10% between the years 2016 and 2026. Graphic design and multimedia—skills that are also needed in the video game industry—are expected to rise sharply too, and professions in this field earn an average of $72,520 annually according to BLS research.
Funding Your Studies as a Current or Former Inmate
As a distance-learning student participating in online study, your fees will be considerably lower than a student physically attending university and staying on-campus for the duration. All students may apply for federal student aid, but there are some limitations that affect whether you’ll be able to receive funding as an incarcerated inmate. Individuals with a criminal record may face difficulty being approved for funding depending on the type of crime they were convicted for. What’s more, current inmates are unlikely to be approved for many of the grants available from the government; only 1% of Pell Grant funding went to incarcerated inmates in 2018.
For those currently serving time inside a correctional facility, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or FSEOG, is one potential option for funding. Though you are not disqualified from making an application whilst incarcerated, priority is given to students who are not serving time, meaning you’re much less likely to be fortunate in securing this funding. An alternative is Federal Work-Study (FWS). The bad news is that if you’re incarcerated in a federal or state prison, you’re not eligible for federal student loans or the Pell Grant. You may, however, apply for a Pell Grant if you’re inside a different type of institution.
After release from prison, most eligibility restrictions are lifted, leaving you able to apply for a Pell Grant or federal student loans, but there are some exceptions. If convicted of a serious drug-related crime, then you may remain ineligible after release, unless you complete an approved drug rehabilitation program. Additionally, crimes of a sexual nature may also result in you remaining ineligible for funding after release.
However, it’s worth filling in the application for federal student aid, even if you think that you may be ineligible to receive any support. Even if you’re not able to get funding, colleges use the information provided on your application to help form their decision on who should get other grants and scholarships offered directly by the institution. The application you’ll need to complete is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA.
Alternatives to Federal Student Aid
If you’re not eligible for federal student aid, and you can’t afford the cost of studying yourself, it’s still worth considering other avenues of funding. A report from the Bureau of Justice in 2018 found that the recidivism rate was 83% for prisoners released in 2005, meaning 5 out of 6 former inmates were arrested for at least one subsequent crime in the decade following their release. Recidivism is the likelihood for a former inmate to reoffend after being released from a correctional facility.
However, it was also found that those who participated in prison education were significantly less likely to reoffend. It also found how these people were likely to be more successful in finding jobs when compared to those who did not pursue an education. So, it’s in your interest to pursue a course of education that could help set you up for a meaningful career when you begin rebuilding your life. Here are some of the alternatives to federal student aid to consider.
Grants or Scholarships
Eligibility around scholarships and other grants, typically funded by private institutions, are usually much more relaxed than those attached to federal funding. In fact, there are some scholarships specifically designed to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated inmates, which aren’t available to other applicants. In your search for funding you could try websites like Scholarships.com and FinAid, which are essentially search engines for funding. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) also has ‘Scholarship Finder’. Make sure you study the entry requirements attached to any scholarships before spending time filling out an application. But to make things a little easier, here’s an example of a few scholarships that are offered to currently incarcerated inmates.
1. College and Paralegal Scholarships for Incarcerated People
The College and Paralegal Scholarships for Incarcerated People awards scholarships for one of the universities most well-known for prison correspondence courses, Adam’s State University. They’ve also been known to award scholarships to some inmates convicted of crimes of a sexual nature, something that federal funding disqualifies.
2. Dennis J. Beck Memorial Scholarship
Any resident of Jackson County who attends a local high school or college can apply for the Dennis J. Beck Memorial Scholarship. However, there are other eligibility requirements too; only ethnic minorities may apply and they must be currently incarcerated in a Jackson County correctional facility. They must also be enrolled in the Jackson College Prison Education Initiative. While this does narrow down the potential applicant pool, it also means that there’s no priority given to non-incarcerated students.
3. Eileen J. Smith , R.N. Memorial Scholarship
The Eileen J. Smith R.N. Memorial Scholarship is another source of funding aimed at students who are enrolled in the Jackson College Prison Education Initiative, as well as being housed in a Jackson County corrections facility.
4. Bruce and Marjorie Sundlun Scholarship
Students awarded the Bruce and Marjorie Scholarship may receive up to $2,000 in funding. This scholarship was set up specifically to help single parents who want to pursue education but cannot afford to do so. Priority is given to those parents who have also previously been incarcerated in a correctional facility and who have not pursued a higher education than high school.
5. NYU scholarship for formerly-incarcerated students
As of fall 2020, New York University (NYU) now offes two new needs-assessed scholarships to individuals who have previously been incarcerated. This is the result of a joint campaign from the Incarceration to Education Coalition and Prison Industrial Complex Committee.
Tips for Succeeding in Online Study
Your life inside of a correctional facility can help prepare you for the sometimes-rigorous schedule required for studying towards an online degree. Tuition can be expensive, so you want to give it your all when it comes to putting time aside to study and complete your assignments and examinations. Some of these tips will apply more to those studying from outside of prison, but some will be useful for those also incarcerated who are granted permission to use the internet for their education.
Treat your studies as if they’re a job
If you want the best chance at succeeding in a career after your incarceration ends, then you should treat your education like a job. You may have been assigned a prison job that requires you to work every day, which will help give you the time management skills required to commit to a set study time each day. Schedule your assessments and coursework and make sure you stick to your schedule as closely as possible.
Manage your time carefully
Unfortunately, you’re not responsible for managing your own time inside of a correctional facility, due to the strict schedule imposed on most inmates. However, you can ensure you’re prepared for the allocated time that you are given to access your study materials, and spend time reviewing any that you’re allowed to take back to your cell. If you’ve been released from prison, then you should set yourself a schedule and stick to it. Work out how much time you need to cover all the materials on your course. Make sure anybody you live with knows not to bother you while you’re working on your course.
Utilize online information resources
Inmates will likely have greater difficulty accessing student resources outside of any dedicated learning portal due to internet restrictions. However, some may still be available and many will likely be available through the portal. Make sure you review and, if possible, print any useful study resources you can from the internet during your allocated study time.
Break down your course into manageable milestones
When you’re taking an online degree or certificate, you’re responsible for managing your own time and workload. If you’re not expected to attend a physical classroom, then staying on top of the course load can be more difficult. So, spend some time figuring out how much you have to cover and how long you have. Then, using a calendar if possible, break the course down into manageable tasks so that you can check you’re on track.
Take breaks—if you need them
If you’re studying after release from prison, don’t overload yourself. Take short but frequent breaks to give your mind a rest and avoid eye strain from staring at a computer screen. If you’re incarcerated, it’s likely that your study time each day won’t be particularly long, but you should still take breaks if you need them. Studying for an online degree can feel daunting compared to your other day-to-day tasks, so if you need to step away from the computer for a couple of minutes, that’s okay.
Work ahead of deadlines
Don’t treat deadlines as a target, as you could risk running over them. Some institutions do allow inmates to request an extension, often up to six months, but you should still aim to work ahead of your deadlines. Try to achieve your assignments early so that you’re not rushing a piece of work or panicking. This is especially important inside of correctional facilities, where life is often tumultuous and your study time could be interrupted or cancelled without notice.
Speak to others in your course if possible
If you’re studying from inside prison and your education portal has a communal space—such as a forum—you may not be able to access it. While you can usually communicate with professors or a designated supervisor, most internet functionality is limited from computer systems inside of prison. If you can communicate with peers on your course, help each other out with proof-reading, assignments, and resources. You may form connections that you’ll keep after release or that could help you in your future career. If you can’t communicate, make sure you make use of your designated supervisor or professor as much as you need.