An education's value depends upon the individual’s social status and characteristics.
To the primary- or secondary-school student, an education is an event that must be put up with. They go to school because their parents tell them to do so. They learn without realizing it and when summer comes around, school is forgotten in place of friends and camp. Life is small and small is good. At most, one will worry about SAT scores and which college they might want to go to.
To the post-secondary student, an education is potentially more. It is something which must be put up with in order to earn that coveted degree. Then, off into the world they go. Naturally, this education could mean much more or much less. It is something seen as an addition to their life – personal and professional development – not their very existence.
To the parent of a school-aged child, an education is more. As they see their children go off to school, they see hope. As the report cards are brought back home a fleeting thought pervades their minds. This thought is that their child needs to do well in school in order to do well in life. They know, perhaps firsthand, that doing well in school equates into good colleges, decent employment, and a fulfilling life. Or, perhaps they know that doing poorly in school results in a life like their own, a life somewhat less than what they used to dream of.
And yet, to the incarcerated demographic, an education is potentially so much more than all of this. To the incarcerated student – the one who pursues educational development on their own volition – an education is their very hope, not of a brighter tomorrow, but of a tomorrow...period. The incarcerated student knows that the cards are stacked against them, that life will no longer be as it was back when they didn't have a criminal record. They know that the road is steep and the nights are going to be cold. But they also know that through adversity – and a certain level of oppression – they will grow so much more and become so much more than if given an easy road to follow.
At its base, the dilemma for the incarcerated student can be shown in the difference between incarcerated student and non-incarcerated college student. The non-incarcerated college student worries about going to a community college as opposed to a state college. While the incarcerated student must worry about putting food on the table tomorrow so they, and their families, don't starve. An inherent difference presents itself between choice and need.
This difference is illustrated thusly: The non-incarcerated student chooses to go to college so they can live the kind of life they want to. The incarcerated student needs to go to school in order to survive and compete in the economic marketplace against others who are more, or even less, qualified than themselves. After all, the existence of a criminal record has a muting effect. All educational accomplishments coupled with a criminal record are made somewhat less because of past transgressions, a certain moral turpitude is assumed because of their record. This is regardless of personal growth or academic/professional development.
As such, the value of an education differs markedly according to an individual’s background. Unfortunately, incarcerated students – prisoners – are the most disenfranchised demographic. Perhaps because of the smorgasbord of obstacles in their way, they are the only ones to realize how important an education is. Perhaps not. What is clear is that these people, incarcerated students, have a tough road to follow, a road filled with potholes and "do not enter" signs which are not in the path of non-incarcerated students. What is clear is that the incarcerated student values a higher education, has to fight injustice to obtain one, and if the student succeeds and earns that coveted degree, is a changed person.
After reflecting upon this, I suppose the question isn't: "What is the value of an education to a disenfranchised demographic?" But: "What American in their right mind would hold a higher education out of reach of a group of people who are willing to work, grow, change, and succeed?" The sad answer – to date – is: Every American of voting age in 1994. For it was this group of voters, who, in 1994, allowed their elected representatives to ban Pell Grants, the most basic needs-based form of student aid, from prisoners: The most disenfranchised demographic in American society. The impact of this event is still being felt to this day.