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What are the Economic Effects of Earning a GED in Prison?

What economic impact does earning a certificate of General Educational Development (GED) offer offenders after they are released from prison? NCSALL researcher John Tyler and a colleague, Jeffrey Kling of Princeton University, examined this question using data from the state of Florida. They compared school dropouts who had been incarcerated in Florida prisons between 1994 and 1999 and obtained a GED during that time with dropouts who entered and exited prison at about the same period but either did not participate in educational programming while in prison or who participated but did not complete a GED. They used state unemployment insurance data for earnings information: the study examined the mainstream labor market rather than the “under the table” economy.

This study is important because, as Tyler reminds us, “The growing prison population is primarily fueled by low educated individuals, especially racial and ethnic minorities: the people we are most worried about in the labor market.” To what extent do education and training programs help these individuals successfully reintegrate into the mainstream labor market? “GED programs are ubiquitous in prisons,” points out Tyler, so studying the economic effect they have makes sense.

“Among racial and ethnic minority offenders — primarily African Americans with a smaller number of Hispanics — we found about a

20 percent increase in the earnings among GED holders relative to non-GED holders in the first post-release year. This effect declined in the second year and by the third year it fell away to basically zero,” explains Tyler. “We found that, for white offenders, there was no difference in the post-release earnings or employment for individuals who got a GED versus those who did not.”

Tyler and Kling’s findings are very similar to those reached by a previous study on the effects of vocational education in prison by the Bureau of Prisons (Saylor & Gaes, 1996). “If you think that the GED is something that will turn prisoners’ lives around, this is a discouraging study,” explains Tyler. “On the other hand, in a world where it’s hard to find big effects in many social programs targeted at our most disadvantaged populations, [this study shows that] the GED program does have pretty big initial effects for people we are very concerned about.”


The initial positive economic effect of the GED on minorities — compared to similar ex-offenders who did not attain the GED — dwindles away after two years. Research needs to be done to help us understand why this is so: it may be because the jobs that ex-offenders get tend not to be “career ladder” jobs with opportunities for growth. The non-GED-holding ex-offenders may be getting jobs over time, and the GED-holding group, while working, may not be experiencing substantial wage increases. Thus, over time, the initial positive effect on the earnings of ex-offenders who earned GEDs may be diminishing as the uncredentialed ex-offenders eventually find their way into employment. This is, however, speculation at this point.

Why the white GED-earning ex-offenders’ earnings were not statistically different from those of white ex-offenders who did not complete GEDs or did not participate in GED programs while incarcerated is unknown. This phenomenon certainly raises questions and merits further study.

Other Attributes

By making offenders who participated in prison-based GED programs but did not get their GEDs a key comparison group, the researchers addressed the question of the “omitted variable” problem: what if the offenders who studied for their GEDs in prison had attributes that would have led them to have “superior labor market outcomes” to those of non-GED attempters, even if they did not complete a GED? “For example,” says Tyler, “a GED may simply be a proxy for intelligence or motivation that would have led to greater employment and earnings anyway, with no causal role for the GED itself.”

The study is also important because the researchers were able to control for a variety of factors that others researching the impact of prison education on ex-offenders have not been able to control for: prior criminal justice record, prior earnings, marriage status, and prior academic skills level as measured by the Tests for Adult Basic Education, for example. This methodology enables researchers to attribute impact to the GED rather than to these other factors.


Whether these findings can be generalized to other states depends upon the similarity between Florida — the state that was the source of the data — and the state in question. “Florida is a pretty big prison population state,” notes Tyler, “but it looks much more like the rest of the US prison population than do other big states like Texas or California, because those states have much higher percentages of Hispanics in their prison populations. You also have to think about the economies: in the late 1990s, when these folks were moving out into the Florida economy. Was [Florida’s economy in the late 90s] sufficiently different from yours? If so, will the lessons hold for your state?”

To read the full study, “Prison-Based Education and Re-Entry into the Mainstream Labor Market,” go to

– Barbara Garner

Saylor, W., & Gaes, G. (1996). “PREP: Training inmates through industrial work participation, and vocational and apprenticeship instruction.” US Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved May 3, 2005, from

Understanding and Acting on these Findings

This is a thought-provoking study. The findings — that the GED has a positive economic impact on minority ex-offenders during the first two years after release from incarceration but that the impact dwindles thereafter, and that the GED has virtually no economic impact on white ex-offenders — raise important questions. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Why does the impact dwindle after two years?
  • Why does the GED have no positive economic impact on white ex-offenders?
  • What role does society’s treatment of ex-offenders have that overrides the positive economic impact the GED has on non-offenders? (see Why Go Beyond the GED?; Results from a New Approach to Studying the Economic Benefits of the GED; Do the Cognitive Skills of Dropouts Matter in the Labor Market?)
  • What other impact does earning a GED have on offenders?
  • What could corrections GED programs do to help ex-offenders improve their economic futures?

We hope that you and your colleagues, and you and your students, explore these questions. Share your ideas with others via the Focus on Basics electronic discussion list (find out how to subscribe.) Researchers including John Tyler are particularly curious about why, for example, earning the GED offers white ex-offenders no economic boost.