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It's difficult, in some people's minds, to rationalize spending state resources to provide college courses to prison inmates.

But for the past 20 years, Utah State University has provided bachelor's and master's degree programs online or via satellite to state prison inmates. Inmates are charged $100 per semester regardless of how many classes they take. There are 166 people in the program presently.

Over the past two decades, the program has awarded 91 college degrees to inmates. National studies say there is a far lower rate of recidivism among prison inmates who complete college degrees while behind bars compared to peers who do not seek higher education. This is important because most inmates eventually return to society.

Moreover, these programs are a smart investment in human capital. People who undergo job training or have attained college degrees stand a better chance of success on the outside because they have a greater likelihood of earning a living wage. Moreover, education helps people from all walks of life become better citizens. Corrections officials tell USU officials that inmates who participate in education programs are better inmates.

But USU's prison program, which operates in Draper, Gunnison and Panguitch, is running a large deficit. Unless new funding becomes available, USU will have to stop providing upper-division course work to prison inmates. The Legislature should provide this funding. Private sources also should be investigated. Inmates who take these classes could be asked to pay higher or full tuitions to help cover costs.

USU's program suffered financially after Federal Pell Grants for prison education were eliminated. But USU, long a leader in distance education in Utah, maintained its commitment to the program, understanding the broader societal benefits of educating people. It has born the cost of inmates' books .

Other institutions such as Salt Lake Community College, Snow College and Dixie State College provide associate degree programs in correctional settings, so inmates seeking those degrees could conceivably complete those studies with another institution. Seemingly, these colleges are also vulnerable to the economic pressures that have imperiled the USU program.

Providing funding for college education programs in state prisons is probably not a priority for state lawmakers. But over the long run, Utahns benefit when parolees have taken steps to improve themselves. If they are able to contribute to society, there is less likelihood they will re-offend and return to prison. An annual state appropriation to keep these programs viable should help reduce recidivism and future prison costs. It would be a sound investment in state resources and human potential.