A few months ago, I saw someone retweet a map with the title “Who houses more people – colleges or prisons?” In many Southern and Western states, the answer to this question was prisons. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post published a piece on Wonkblog with the headline, “The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live.” Taken together, these two headlines suggest that there may be more prisoners in the United States, or parts of it, than there are college students.

At least, this was my first impression. I was shocked, and bookmarked it as something to look into for a future blog post. (Hence, today’s post.) But while there are legitimate concerns about the size and scope of incarceration in the United States, it is not the case that there are more prisoners than college students. In all states, there are more individuals enrolled in colleges or universities than there are prisoners. Like many statistics, this one hinges on some key definitional issues.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • College students outnumber prisoners 10-to-1 in the United States. In the 2010 Census, there were 2.4 million individuals living in correctional institutions. There were 2.5 million individuals living in college or university student housing. However, the 2010 American Community Survey reports 23.5 million individuals currently enrolled in college, meaning there were 21 million college students who were not living in college or university student housing in 2010.
  • “Correctional facilities” include county jails as well as state and federal prisons which are more locally based than colleges. Virtually every county or community with its own police force also has some form of local or regional jailing capacity, if only to hold individuals temporarily as they go through the court process. Colleges and universities tend to be more regionally oriented, and are not present in every community.

For more on data verification, check out this great article from Governing: “The Smell Test for Bad Data

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