Infographic Of The Day: What’s More Expensive, Prison Or Princeton?

You probably don't even want to know.

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, 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 elides 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.

[Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan; Top image by CJ Schmit]

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  • Revkathy

    So many of you are missing the point. It has more to do with how we value a life as a society. Of course we want criminals isolated from the general population. What we should not want is to create a "feeder" program track for those institutions. When EVERY child's life is valued, we vote with our money to encourage, engage & prepare those minds to participate in post-secondary educational pursuits as opposed to withholding economic resources thus communicating a sense of worthlessness and creating a bottom-feeder mentality!!

  • jc4denise-bailey

    I totally agree. When has life ever been precious to anyone, except to mothers. As American's we are capable of so much more and better for mankind. We (the US) have so much resources and intelligence that much of our problems could have been solved, but instead we throw more people into prison because the people chant "throw him away". Is life in the US falling apart, because it sure seems like it. And for those who jeer someone on or you abandom your morals and values will have to live the consequences that we all will reap. I'm beginning to wonder if American's have become more deindividuates than independent thinkers. Very sad to watch!

  • Sean Gatcomb

    I live in NH where your graphic shows there is a higher spending per inmate than student.  It is some what surprising the amount spent per student/prisoner but there are less prisons than universities.  With both there are laws that govern the type of care are given to both.  Because there are more students there is more "bang for your buck" and if for some strange reason the prison population were to grow to the same size as the student population the amounts spent would probably be more even, although there would be a huge increase due to building more prisons.  Both are needed in society, both create and maintain jobs.  The main difference (just based on cost) is that there is a market for schools public and private and there is none with prisons.  The schools need to balance the cost versus what other schools charge for the same degree, if NH were able to spend as much on students as it did its prisoners the universities in the system would all close due to no one being able to afford a single year of state school.

    I do not believe that prison is a fun place to be and I do not feel that they are being pampered, I also do not feel that correctional employees are over payed.  That service is just more expensive to run compared to others.  

  • cavia

    As a (Norwegian) prison educator, your comparison is relevant and helps refocus the debate as to whether so many people should be imprisoned, especially in USA. America's current prison efforts certainly contribute to expanding the number of criminals in the country.

    Yes, perhaps you should have used median instead of mean, but such discussion only detracts us from discussing the key issues in the debate.

    For the vast majority of the prison population, security should not be an issue. Alternatives to prison exist for many categories of inmates representing large segments of the prison population. One inexpensive choice is an electronic foot bracelets combined with rehabilitation training, curfews, drug testing, etc.

    Security is what currently costs money in USA's prison system, and does not give any lasting benefits to either society or inmates.

    One of the problems I see in America, is the emphasis on retribution, usually referred to as justice. In Norway, we are concerned about rehabilitation while protecting society. Yes, there are inmates who will spend the rest of their lives in Norwegian prisons, but the vast majority - including convicted murderers - will be freed, after spending up to 21 years in prison.

    At our prison school we spend our time teaching hygiene and nutrition. Many of our current prisoners have been abused as children and need to learn anger management and related skills. Many have fallen through cracks in the education system and need to learn how to read, to do math, and to learn basic job skills.

    The phenomena of criminality is not solely the product of a deviant individual, but of an uncaring society that - more often than not - has not given the individual the set of skills necessary to be a productive and constructive member of society. Education is vital to help every convict live up to his or her potential.

  • Garyloudermilk

    I think one should consider the cost to society if the criminals are left on the street. This cost is huge compared to the cost of incarceration alone. Therefore if one subtracts the cost to the public from the cost of incarceration the total cost of imprisonment is therefore a negative number. Your premise is incomplete at best!

  • Phaedon

    Awesome idea, Suzanne.  Your nephews and nieces, or sons and daughters if you have them, can share their dorm rooms with the prisoners you free and send to college.  Think of all the money being saved!

  • Briand

    First of all, median is the more appropriate statistic for income distribution.  With averages, the outliers (pretty much the millionaires/billionaires) make the typical standard of living seem a lot higher than it is.

    Second, I don't think its appropriate to claim that the state prioritizes prison over higher education.  At least not based on this data. The state doesn't have a choice on fully funding prison, but with education, individuals cover a large portion of the costs, thus relieving the burden on the state. And those in the lower income brackets (those that are contributing the most to the prison population) are the highest likely to also get state aid for tuition.  So is this an argument for more spending on education or less spending on prison? Two separate debates.

    The most revealing stat to me is that the US indexes 5 times more on prison population.  A good question to ask is what policies/laws do we have in place that creates this? The $ flows after the fact.

  • Jesse Boateng

    Terrific article/infograph Suzanne! Just subscribed to your twitter - keep up the great work.

  • JonnyC4

    what about combining the two. Making it WAY easier to get an education in prison.  Ex-cons are also the least hired group.  It might just be a way the government subsidized the job market.

  • Gustaf Brandberg

    @mik "I think it would be better to publish the average, you don't want the majority dragging things down." Well, someone said that a society's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Maybe it is time for you to contemplate if the US really is the best country in the world? I do love and admire a lot of things about the US but it is not exactly a utopia.

  • Putri Julia Daskian

    Regardless of its content it is a very well-designed presentation. @mik 25% of the world's prisoners are in US is not too surprising seeing as you can get sued and go to jail for almost anything in the US (apparently you can go to jail for drinking a beer from a bucket in St. Louis). Whether that makes it the best or worst country in the world depends on how you see it.

  • mik

    I don't know what the point is of doing an arbitrary comparison?  Is there a name for that technique in journalism school?

    The article reveals some interesting statistics I must admit.  
    How can it be that 25% of the world's prisoners are in the US?  Its the best country in the world, so those figures are perhaps wrong.  

    And the median income is surprisingly low.  I think it would be better to publish the average, you don't want the majority dragging things down.

  • futures trading

    "States spending more on prison than higher edu" I'm very surprised to hear this.

  • Paralegal_in_calfiornia

    Are you actually suggesting we release prisoners and send them to college? 
    How many prisoners actually WOULD go to college?  I can't argue with the
    facts regarding costs, but we have prisons for a REASON. 

  • danielmckenzie

    Thanks Suzanne for the great article, info graphic and topic. Clearly, investing in prisons is a short-term solution that while, working well for politicians and their chances of re-election, burns society in the end. Is government capable of looking at the big picture? Maybe they just got a bad education.