Online Report

Nondegree Credentials in Correctional Education: Status, Challenges, and Benefits

Providing incarcerated adults with education and training programs can improve their chances of obtaining a job after release and lower their recidivism rates (Davis et al. 2014). These programs include career and technical education (CTE) programs, or vocational training, which the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, defines as “special programs designed to train participants for a job” (Harlow 2003, p. 4).

CTE programs typically help incarcerated adults earn one of the following nondegree credentials:


A credential awarded by a certification body based on an individual demonstrating through an examination process that he or she has acquired the designated knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a specific job. Certification is a time-limited credential that is renewed through a recertification process.


A credential awarded by a government agency that constitutes legal authority to do a specific job. Licenses are based on some combination of degree or certificate attainment, certifications, assessments, or work experience; are time-limited; and must be renewed periodically.

Educational certificate

A credential awarded for life by a training provider or educational institution based on completion of all requirements for a program of study, including coursework and test or other performance evaluations. Certificates, as an academic award, are not time limited and do not need to be renewed. Most educational certificates are awarded at the subbaccalaureate level, but a small number are awarded after the completion of a postsecondary degree.

Key study findings:

Program need

The need for correctional education programs, including those that lead to nondegree credentials, is great. Although 40 percent of incarcerated adults lack a high school diploma, by some estimates less than one-quarter of adults incarcerated in federal and state correctional institutions participate in adult secondary education programs. Far fewer participate in postsecondary education and training programs before release (Crayton and Neusteter 2008; Harlow 2003).

Incarcerated adults without a high school


Incarcerated adults participating in adult
secondary education programs


Program outcomes

A number of studies have been conducted to determine the post-release outcomes of correctional education. Only a few of these studies focus on the outcomes of nondegree credential programs. Of those that do make a distinction between the different types of education programs offered in prisons, CTE programs were shown to have a more positive effect on recidivism rates and prison costs than other education programs, such as adult basic education (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006; MacKenzie 2006; Wilson, Gallagher, and MacKenzie 2000).

CTE programs were shown to have a more positive effect on recidivism rates and prison costs than other education programs, such as adult basic education.

Program enrollment

According to the states interviewed for the study, incarcerated adults who participate in nondegree credential programs typically must meet several eligibility requirements related to their educational attainment and correctional status. They are also perceived to be more motivated and mature than those who do not enroll. Their motivation may be influenced by various incentive structures (e.g., time off sentence) that some state departments of corrections offer.

Applicants for nondegree credential programs are typically expected to:

have a high school credential

meet certain reading and mathematics level requirements

have no major disciplinary infractions within a given time frame

be within a few years of release in order to have time to complete the program prior to release

Program persistence and completion

Motivation and maturity positively affect student persistence in and completion of a correctional education program. A student’s prior educational level is also a factor, as are a range of environmental conditions that can positively or negatively affect persistence and completion, such as being removed from a program because of facility transfer.

Some of the states reported that those who had higher reading and mathematics levels when entering the program were more likely to be successful.

Program cost

The diversity among programs that lead to nondegree credentials offered in prison and variations in how states calculate program costs make it difficult to provide a general range for the cost of administering programs. States typically pay for programs, though, using department of corrections budgets with some supplemental funding coming from CTE state grants, adult education state grants, and vocational rehabilitation grants.

The states provided wide-ranging cost estimates for their nondegree credential programs.

Program offerings

Across the states interviewed for the study, the most common correctional education programs that lead to nondegree credentials are in the construction trades and those required for in-demand jobs (e.g., heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; welding; and automotive repair). The most common programs among the female population vary because of capacity issues but include custodial service, computer technician, cosmetology, and culinary arts.

Male Population

Construction Trades

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning


Automotive repair

Female Population

Custodial service

Computer technician


Culinary arts

Program fidelity and quality

All of the states interviewed for the study regularly review their nondegree credential programs to ensure they are current and meet accreditation standards by national certification organizations or state licensing boards. They also reported that their programs typically articulate with community college programs.

Programs typically articulate with community college programs.

Facility obstacles

Correctional facilities face a number of obstacles with offering programs leading to a nondegree credential, including competing demands for students’ time, class disruptions, facility transfers, technology and other resource restrictions, space limitations, and recruitment of qualified teachers. These challenges are common across most correctional education programs, however, and are not specific to CTE programs.

Competing demands for students’ time

Class disruptions

Facility transfers

Technology and other resource restrictions

Space limitations

Recruitment of qualified teachers

Student obstacles

Incarcerated students face a number of challenges with persisting in and completing programs and earning a credential, including personal obstacles (e.g., low educational skills when entering the program and poor study skills), institutional obstacles (e.g., competing demands for student’s time and class disruptions), and post-release obstacles (e.g., lack of articulation agreements with community colleges and lack of employment assistance and other support services).

Personal obstacles

(e.g., low educational skills when entering the program and poor study skills)

Institutional obstacles

(e.g., competing demands for student’s time and class disruptions)

Post-release obstacles

(e.g., lack of articulation agreements with community colleges and lack of employment assistance and other support services)

Economic value of program

The employers and employment specialists interviewed for the study have anecdotal evidence indicating that nondegree credentials help formerly incarcerated individuals find employment.

A study conducted using Indiana data found that the higher an individual’s education, the less likely he or she is to be unemployed or recidivate after release (Nally et al. 2012).


With employers and employment placement specialists having only anecdotal evidence about the economic value of nondegree credential programs, more research is needed on how these programs affect employment, wages, and job stability after release. Also, which programs have the most impact on post-release outcomes, and why? More information is also needed on promising practices and the costs of these programs. Specifically, how are states addressing the challenges facing incarcerated students and facilities offering nondegree credential programs, and can these approaches be replicated in other facilities and states? What are the costs of education and training programs that lead to educational certificates, professional certifications, and licenses? Are the costs for these programs recouped through post-release outcomes such as lower recidivism rates? With this additional information, state departments of corrections will be in a better position to maintain and increase funding for their programs. They also will have the guidance they need to improve their programs that lead to nondegree credentials so that their students are well prepared to obtain a long-term, living-wage job after release and successfully transition out of the criminal justice system.