Cellblocks or Classrooms?

Cellblocks or Classrooms?

The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and its Impact on African American Men

Part of a summary from JusticePolicy.orgSpending on prisons is increasing fast while spending on education is declining fast.


During a time in which 41 states face budget shortfalls, many state legislatures are cutting spending on colleges and universities and raising tuition. The way state spending has evolved throughout much of the country, the costs of maintaining prisons and universities have collided in the same part of a states’ discretionary funding envelope. Throughout the1980s and 1990s, states have chosen to pay for an ever increasing and costly corrections system. At the same time, the progress made in improving African American access to college has been eclipsed by the growth of the African American male incarcerated population.

In Cellbocks or Classrooms? the Justice Policy Institute provides both a fiscal analysis of state spending on colleges and corrections from 1985 to 2000, and illustrates the impact of state and federal spending decisions on African American male representation in education systems versus prisons and jails.

Key Findings

1. The Share of Total State and Local Government Spending on Higher Education has Declined as Spending on Prisons has Increased.

Between 1980 and 2000, the American prison and jail population quadrupled from 500,000 to 2 million prisoners, and the cost of the expanding corrections system came to occupy a much larger share of state and local spending. During the last two decades of the millennium, corrections’ share of all state and local spending grew by 104%, while higher education’s share of all state and local spending dropped by 21%.

2. Between 1985 and 2000, State Corrections Spending Grew at 6 Times the Rate of Higher Education.

In constant dollars, the increase in state spending on corrections was nearly double that of the increase to higher education ($20 billion on corrections, $10.7 billion on higher education). The total change in spending on higher education by states was 24%, compared with a 166% increase for corrections.

3. As Corrections Consumed a Larger Share of State Spending, College Costs have Also Risen, and the Burden for Paying for College has Shifted to Students.

From 1980 to 1998, student tuition and fees support for higher education has risen at 8 times the rate of state support. For a low-income family (the lowest income quintile) the cost of paying the tuition at a four-year public institution increased from 13% of their income in 1980 to 25% in 2000.

4. More African American Men are in Prison and Jail than in Higher Education.

In 1999/2000, there were more African American men in prison and jail (791,600) than were in higher education (603,000).

Between 1980 and 2000, JPI estimates that 3 times as many African American men were added to the prison systems than were added to the nation’s colleges and universities.

Choosing to Cut Correctly?

If fiscal year 2003 is, as predicted, as difficult on the states as the previous year, recent history suggests that states will make up some of their shortfalls by constricting spending on education and social services, including higher education. If spending on higher education is limited or cut, these decisions would compound declining state investment in higher education over the fifteen-year period, as the growing corrections system crowds out colleges and universities


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