Which Is More Expensive, Prison or Princeton?

We’re all moderately aware that the prison system costs taxpayers a lot of money. But how expensive is it really?

More expensive than going to an Ivy League school.

This provocative infographic from PublicAdministration.net, an online resource for students and professionals in public administration, shows that it costs the state of New Jersey more to lock away a prisoner in Trenton ($44,000) than it does to send someone to Princeton for a year ($37,000).


But that’s not even the worst of it. The chart goes on to compare the anatomy of the corrections system to that of higher education in the United States, with some disturbing results: Spending soared 127% in prisons between 1987 and 2007; in higher education, it increased just 21%. States like New Hampshire, Vermont, and New Jersey blow nearly twice as much on incarceration as they do on colleges. In California alone, spending averages $48,214 per inmate and only $7,463 per student.

All of which disproportionately affects black America. The number of African Americans in dorm rooms: 270,000. In prison? 820,000.

And it’s not like this a global phenomenon. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. To put that in the context of higher education: The incarceration rate is higher here than in any other country, while our college graduation rate is sixth in the world.

To be sure, the chart omits certain details, like the socioeconomic roots of incarceration. But as a basic portrait of American priorities, it’s pretty telling: We care more about sending people to prison than we do about helping them get an education. And we’re dumber and poorer for it.


  1. Some services are more expensive than others because of the nature of the service or the nature of the demand for services. Incarcerating people who are dangerous to society will generally be more expensive than teaching people who are there voluntarily and can leave at any time.

    If you required that students never leave campus for four years, shoot them if they try to escape, keep them under constant surveillance, and check their dorm room for contraband on a regular basis, outlawing all drugs and subjecting them all to random cavity searches, the college would be a lot more expensive.

    I think a better comparison is between money spent on mental health institutions compared to prisons. Mental hospitals (or whatever the correct term is today) are probably half the cost per-person than prisons. When the mental hospitals shut down or can’t take any more patients, many of those patients wind up in prison instead. So, in some cases it’s pay a little now or pay much more later.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, though the maps and charts are a little misleading. The big reason that Oregon spends far more on prisons than higher education is not because Oregon has a big prison system. It’s a TINY system. It’s because Oregon has teeny-tiny state budget and spends a paltry amount on education in the first place. Oregon probably spends more on landscaping on state property than it does on higher ed….

    Come to think of it, comparing the cost of prison to the cost of an Ivy League education could be even more depressing, considering that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton could cut their tuition in half and still make a tidy profit. You’re comparing state expenses with tuition to private schools (mostly) that are turning a profit and can set their prices as high as they want to.

    I’m with Jake: who says you can’t send someone to Princeton AND to prison?

  3. I absolutely appreciate the sentiment of this infographic, totally agree our prison system is broken and personally believe privatized incarceration is one of the most evil things to happen to our country…

    However, I’m not sure what this country needs right now is MORE criminals with Ivy League educations…

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Do the current inhabitants of colleges know about this?
    How do you home school a college education? Might be worth thinking about.

  5. After more than 40 years as a therapist working primarily with men I’ve found that the social policies and practices that lead some people towards college and other people towards prison are related. I’m certainly not suggesting that we save money by closing the prisons and sending the inmates off to college. Nor am I saying that the men in prison have not committed crimes (though a lot of them are there due to use of drugs) and shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. I think we’d all agree that we want to have our young men (and women) better educated for the world we live in and live lives that are helpful to society. I believe we can do a better job by sending fewer people to prison.

  6. re: “To be sure, the chart omits certain details, like the socioeconomic roots of incarceration.”

    Precisely. This is comparing apples and oranges. The proper response here is to figure out a policy to keep less non-violent offenders out of prison.

  7. For certain type of people prison can teach better lesson than a college.

    • I’ve worked in prisons and I’ve worked in colleges and believe me the lessons taught in prison (how to be a better criminal and how to build up more rage from the brutalization that goes on in priosn) are not going to make better people out of those who are sent there. Of course, not all experiences in college make for good training for the “good men” award. But if I had to choose where I’d want to send my sons, daughters, grandsons and granddauthers, I think its clear what I’d choose. How about you?

      • I myself work in university and I certainly do not want my university to compete with prisons for suitable candidates. Those who deserve to go to college must go to college and those who deserve to go to prison should be locked there. Never shall two meet. Wishing well for children is good but at last they (children) have to prove their mettle where they deserve to be.

  8. And let’s not forget that college vs. prison is a gender biased proposition. Most people in prisons are male, while the ratio of males to females in college is dropping. We’re locking up our young men rather than supporting the community efforts for jobs, self-esteem, care, and support that would encourage them to continue their education in college rather than prison.

  9. In California alone, spending averages $48,214 per inmate and only $7,463 per student.

    i completely agree with you suzanne, id rather spend $50k on highly educating every child so that the level of crime caused by limited job opportunities and employment prospects, due to lack of qualifications is greatly reduced – at least i hope it would surely reduce

    ive often wondered, suppose that 80% of the population in a country held advanced degrees in STEMlike subjects. for such a highly educated workforce would jobs then magically appear fitting these workers skills, or would there still be a limited number of STEM positions (and would we then see the majority of the STEMer’s working in low skilled service jobs)

  10. The eligibility criteria for going to prison is quite different from the eligibility criteria for going to Princeton. Therefore comparing their cost effectiveness is a futile exercise.

    • Yes, however it’s no secret the normative qualifications and characteristics of those who avoid prison as an outcome of interacting with the criminal justice system correlate positively with the general characteristics predictive of Princeton admission. Futile is one way to think about it, revealing is another.

Speak Your Mind