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College for Ex-Offenders A Guide to Continuing Education After Prison

Pursuing higher education is an excellent way for ex-offenders to re-enter their communities and live productive, fulfilling lives. But many may not know where to start. This guide answers common questions about returning to school after prison, reviews the financial aid available and spotlights the best degrees for ex-offenders.

Meet the Experts

Steven Toplan, MS Director of Admissions for the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine
Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., ABPP Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Tracey Bowen Bell Academic Advisor

Written By

Kenya McCullum

Getting Started

Although people who have been incarcerated share a common experience, they each have different needs based on their unique educational background. The following guides provide information for prospective students who want to earn a degree from different starting points.

FAQs for Ex-Offenders Returning to School

Navigating the world of higher education can be complicated for any student, but being an ex-offender creates its own distinctive challenges. Experts Steve Toplan, Dr. Jeffrey Gardere and Tracey Bowen answer common questions ex-offenders may have about returning to school.

Do students have to disclose their criminal conviction when they apply to colleges? Should they handle disclosure in the same way for online and traditional schools?

  • ToplanSome schools ask, some don’t. A criminal conviction may have more bearing when applying for a graduate professional program, since the conviction may prevent the student from obtaining a license despite having the degree.

  • BowenMost college applications have a question asking about prior convictions. If asked, given that most applications have you sign affirming that you have been truthful in your answers, it is in your best interest to reply with the truth. Disclosure would be the same for online and traditional schools.

Can colleges reject an application on the basis of a criminal record?

  • ToplanCan they? Yes. Would they say “You have been rejected due to your conviction?” Definitely not. My impression is that a rejection rarely comes from just a conviction, but a combination of factors.

  • BowenThey can, however few actually do. Instead, they will ask for detailed personal statements, letters from probation officers, character references, etc.

Should college applicants address their criminal conviction in their admissions essay?

  • ToplanIt is usually better to own up to a past mistake than to hide it.

  • GardereAbsolutely. You must show that you learned from the criminal conviction, and how it has made you a better person and better student. I say own it, control it, make it powerful and be empowered from it. Don’t let the school or reviewer turn it into something negative.

  • BowenI would suggest addressing the conviction outside of the essay, unless specifically asked to do so. The conviction is a moment in time, not the entirety of one’s life. Unless the conviction adds to the compelling message the student is telling, it’s better shared elsewhere.

How should prospective students talk about their conviction if it comes up during a college admissions interview?

  • ToplanThey should talk about what they learned from the experience and explain how and why they are in a different place. Also, there are many different types of criminal convictions (being drunk is different from a violent attack) and this is often taken into consideration.

  • GardereThey should be humble and remorseful. But they should also show strength and show how the conviction was an eye opener to issues that needed to be addressed, and they continue to be addressed through counseling and other positive behaviors.

  • BowenAbove all, be honest and straightforward. Do not make excuses or spread blame. State the charges and time served, highlighting a specific positive change that has been made since the conviction. Avoid generalizations like “I learned my lesson,” unless you have a profound example of how you learned your lesson.

Can you live in college housing if you have a criminal conviction?

  • ToplanPossibly. The type of conviction should be taken into consideration when making a decision about this.

  • BowenYes, however some colleges may require a background check for those seeking on campus housing. The rationale being it helps with campus safety to know the nature of the convictions of those living on campus.

What tips can ex-offenders use to adjust to the rigors of college life?

  • BowenDeveloping strong time management skills, creating a reliable support system and proper self-care are critical when navigating college life. These can be a challenge for students without a criminal record!

  • Gardere1. Maintain a relationship with a psychologist/social worker/therapist to help the student achieve balance. 2. Stay in contact with probation/parole officers. 3. Stay away from people, places, and things that could get you in trouble again.

How can ex-offenders get the most out of their college experience?

  • ToplanDon’t just go to class. Join a club or two to see the world through a different lens. Also, they should avail themselves of some of the social services on campus, which are typically free of charge (counselors, tutors).

  • BowenGet involved in campus life. Students should join clubs and groups on campus that are related to their major and special interest. Getting connected helps cultivate a sense of belonging, which plays a large role in student success by creating accountability and belonging.

Do colleges offer resources to ex-offenders to help them with their education?

  • ToplanColleges offer all students resources to help them with their education. Ex-offenders are no different in this regard.

  • BowenYes, some colleges may have special programming that provides tutoring and mentoring for ex-offenders. In addition, there may be grants, stipends and free bus passes for ex-offenders. Student Life, the Dean of Students and financial aid are good places to ask about special programs.

Financial Aid & Scholarships for Ex-Offenders

How to pay for college is something every student is concerned about—and ex-offenders returning to school are no exception. However, the availability of financial aid to these students may differ. This section addresses what financial aid is available to those who have criminal convictions.

Can You Get Financial Aid if You Have a Criminal Conviction?

Students who are currently incarcerated have extremely limited access to financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. If they’re doing time in a federal or state institution, students are not eligible for a Federal Pell Grant or federal student loans.

In addition, while these students can apply for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS), the agency reports they are unlikely to receive these types of aid because priority is given to those who are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant.

When prospective students are released from custody, their options for financial aid become more flexible, depending on the nature of their convictions. For example, those who have been convicted of the possession or sale of illegal drugs while receiving federal financial aid—including loans, grants and work study—forfeit their eligibility for this funding.

However, students with these convictions can get their financial aid reinstated if they successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program approved by the Department of Education or pass two random drug tests conducted by a rehab facility.

In addition, those who have been convicted of forcible or nonforcible sexual offenses are not eligible for federal financial aid if they are subject to involuntary commitment after serving their prison sentence.

Scholarships & Grants for Ex-Offenders

As outlined above, the following types of aid may be available to students after they are released from custody, depending on the type of conviction they received.

Best Degrees if You Have a Criminal Conviction

All students should make an informed decision about the type of degree they earn by considering factors such as the types of jobs available and the earning potential they will have after graduation. In addition, ex-offenders may need to address issues that may come up because of their legal status.

What to Consider When Choosing a Degree Program

Ex-offenders who attend college after being released still have many career options ahead of them. However, they should keep in mind that there may be some barriers when looking for employment because of their past. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Those with felony records may not be able to enter certain careers that require a license because their state may not award credentials to people with criminal convictions.
  • Depending on the state where graduates live, they may not be able to get a license to work in certain health occupations, such as dental assisting, if they have a felony conviction on their record.
  • Ex-offenders may not be able to obtain a license to work in schools, child care centers, home health agencies or nursing homes.
  • Certain government agencies may have policies that bar people with felony convictions from getting jobs there.

In addition, the type of conviction may be a consideration when looking for work.

  • If someone has been convicted of a gun charge, for example, they may not be eligible to work in jobs that require the use of firearms, such as security guard positions.
  • Someone who has been convicted of a charge that involved alcohol may not be able to get work as the manager of a bar.

Although students who are ex-offenders should keep these things in mind when exploring possible careers and degree programs, they should not let this discourage them. There are still many job opportunities they can pursue when they have finished their degrees.

Degree Spotlight

Here are some of the many possible degree options for ex-offenders.

The construction industry can be a good field for ex-offenders because many companies do not perform background checks. In addition, graduates with an entrepreneurial spirit have an opportunity to build their own business in this industry.

Students who enroll in construction management degrees can expect to learn the technical and managerial concepts needed to be successful in the field. They may take coursework that covers areas such as structural analysis, scientific problem solving, project management, field inspection, building codes, real estate development and estimating.

Possible Careers

Construction manager, site engineer, building control surveyor, building services engineer, project manager, building surveyor, cost estimator, facilities manager, scheduler, quantity surveyor, field superintendent, sustainability consultant

Some agencies hire ex-offenders as counselors to help those who are currently incarcerated. In these cases, workers act as role models for those who are imprisoned and may help them with a variety of life problems, such as drug addiction and the aftermath of abuse. In order to prepare for these types of jobs, students can earn a counseling degree.

Counseling degree programs teach students the skills they need to be effective at helping people improve their lives. The curriculum may include classes about juvenile delinquency, personality theory, the psychology of addiction, abnormal psychology, child abuse and neglect counseling, group therapy and crisis intervention.

Possible Careers

Counseling psychologist, behavioral disorder counselor, mental health counselor, vocational (career) counselor, substance abuse counselor

Learn more about getting a counseling degree.

Students who want to pursue technology careers can get the training they need on different systems while earning a computer science degree. They may take courses in subjects like software design and development, operating systems, database management, programming languages, computing theory, and data structures.

Ex-offenders who have technology skills may be able to break into this field if they don’t have convictions related to cybercrimes, fraud, violence and theft.

Learn more about getting a computer science degree.

Possible Careers

Computer systems analyst, network and computer systems administrator, software applications developer, computer programmer, database administrator, computer network architect, web developer, computer and information systems manager

The culinary industry is a good choice for ex-offenders because restaurants generally don’t require background checks when hiring employees. Also, those who are interested in owning their own business can start a catering service or food truck. Students who enter a culinary arts degree program can focus their studies on baking and pastry arts, culinary nutrition, food service management or culinary science.

Possible Careers

Restaurant manager, executive chef, wine sommelier, personal chef, caterer, pastry chef

Students with a creative eye and a desire for self-employment can use a graphic design degree to begin a freelance career in the field. Graphic design programs include classes on desktop publishing, typography, print and online media layout techniques, web design and digital imaging.

Learn more about getting a graphic design degree.

Possible Careers

Graphic designer, film and video editor, creative director, drafter, web designer, art director, product designer

Advocacy Programs & Resources for Ex-Offenders

After being incarcerated, prospective students may not know where to start when it comes to enrolling in a degree program and looking for employment. The following resources can help.

  • National Hire Network

    Provides a list of government agencies and community organizations in each state that assist those with criminal convictions.

  • Help For Felons

    This organization has a list of resources by state for ex-offenders, including education and job resources.

  • Project H.O.P.E.

    Project H.O.P.E. (Helping Offenders Pursue Excellence) helps ex-offenders with re-entry into mainstream society in Alabama, assisting with housing, education and employment.