Ex-offenders Guide To Higher Education

Ex-offenders may have many questions about going to college after prison. Find out how to get a college education if you have a criminal conviction.

Updated August 25, 2022

Ex-offenders Guide To Higher Education

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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. It also reviews available financial aid and spotlights the best degrees for ex-offenders.

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.

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FAQ for Ex-Offenders Returning to School

Navigating higher education can be complicated for any student, but being an ex-offender creates its own 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?

Toplan: Some 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.

Bowen: Most 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?

Toplan: Can 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.

Bowen: They can, however, few actually do. Instead, they will ask for detailed personal statements, letters from probation officers, and character references.

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

Toplan: It is usually better to own up to a past mistake than to hide it.

Gardere: Absolutely. 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 by it. Don't let the school or reviewer turn it into something negative.

Bowen: I 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?

Toplan: They 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.

Gardere: They 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.

Bowen: Above 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?

Toplan: Possibly. The type of conviction should be taken into consideration when making a decision about this.

Bowen: Yes, however some colleges may require a background check for those seeking on-campus housing. 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?

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

Gardere: 1. Maintain a relationship with a psychologist, social worker, or therapist to help achieve balance. 2. Stay in contact with probation or 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?

Toplan: Don'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).

Bowen: Get involved in campus life. Students should join clubs and groups on campus that are related to their major and special interests. 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?

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

Bowen: Yes, 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 Options for Ex-Offenders

Many college students need help paying for higher education. However, financial aid availability for ex-offenders may differ. This section addresses financial aid for people with a criminal conviction.

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

Students who are currently incarcerated receive limited access to financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). People doing time in a federal or state institution are ineligible for a Federal Pell Grant or federal student loans.

In addition, students serving time can apply for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study. However, they are unlikely to receive these types of aid because students eligible for a Federal Pell Grant receive priority.

Prospective students released from custody have more options for financial aid. But options vary depending on 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. They must successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program approved by the ED. Or, they must pass two random drug tests done by a rehab facility.

In addition, people who have been convicted of sexual offenses may not receive aid. Their eligibility may be limited if they are subject to an involuntary civil commitment after serving their prison sentence.

Best Degrees if You Have a Criminal Conviction

All students should make an informed decision about the type of degree they want to earn. They should consider factors such as the types of jobs available and career earning potentials. In addition, ex-offenders may need to address issues that may come up because of their legal status.

Ex-offenders who attend college after being released can pursue many careers after graduating. However, they may face some barriers when looking for employment because of their past. Below are a few things to keep in mind.

People with felony records may face limitations with earning licenses for certain careers. States may not award credentials to people with criminal convictions. For example, felony convictions may limit graduates' abilities to earn licensure to work in certain health occupations, such as dental assisting. Ex-offenders may also not be able to get a license to work in schools, child care centers, home health agencies, or nursing homes.

Certain government agencies may enforce policies that bar people with felony convictions from getting jobs there. For example, if someone has been convicted of a gun charge, they may not get 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 get work as a bar manager.

Although ex-offenders should keep these things in mind when exploring possible careers and degrees, they should not let this discourage them. They can still pursue many job opportunities when they earn their degrees.

Degree Spotlight

The list below highlights degree options for ex-offenders.

Advocacy Programs and Resources for Ex-Offenders

After being incarcerated, prospective students may not know where to start to enroll in a program or look for a job. The following resources can help.

This resource provides job search advice for ex-offenders looking for work. This guide includes information on the education options for ex-offenders. In this resource, the ED describes the financial aid options ex-offenders can take advantage of. This organization provides a list of resources for ex-offenders by state, including education and job resources. Project H.O.P.E. helps ex-offenders with re-entry into mainstream society in North Carolina. It assists with housing, education, and employment.

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