I read in a book that "as the next millennium begins, there are more young black men in prison than in college." Jury Nullification by Clay S Conrad (Kindle edition, Dec 2013 loc: 343). (First Published 1998)

Thinking "That's awful and really?" I first turned to google.


provides a statistical table for 2000-2010 indicating that there were more African Americans in college than in jail or prison in the year 2002 and thereafter. But in 2000 and 2001, there were more in jail or prison.

The same article notes that:

A Washington Post editorial published in June referenced a 2007 quote from then-Senator Barack Obama. In this quote, Obama stated that “we have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.”

National Public Radio (NPR, a non-profit broadcaster) has published a transcript of a radio program dated April 23, 2013:

But you've probably heard that there are more African-American men in jail than in college. Even then-candidate Barack Obama talked about this at an NAACP candidate forum, back in 2007.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.
... ...

Ivory Toldson is an associate professor at Howard University School of Education. He wrote about this for TheRoot.com, and he says...

IVORY TOLDSON: It's wrong. There are 1.4 million black men in college right now, and there are about 840,000 black men in prison.

An NBC News article from Sep 2007 suggests the results can vary depending on who is included in the college category:

More than three times as many black people live in prison cells as in college dorms, the government said in a report to be released Thursday. The ratio is only slightly better for Hispanics at 2.7 inmates for every Latino in college housing. Among non-Hispanic whites, more than twice as many live in college housing as in prison or jail. The numbers, driven by men, do not include college students who live off campus. Previously released census data show that black and Hispanic college students — commuters and those in dorms — far outnumber black and Hispanic prison inmates.

Obviously this topic is something of a political football. I would be open to editorial suggestions to further pin down the question.

  • 2
    Coming from a non-US country, the difference in numbers between attending a college/university and living in a college dorm is immense. (My estimate: <10% of student live on campus here.) I understand that this is somewhat different in parts of the USA. (This is a cultural difference that bewilders me.) I wonder how important that is to the estimates. – Oddthinking Dec 20 '13 at 8:54
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    @Oddthinking Depends on the age of the student and the school. Some require all freshman under a certain age to live on campus and others require it of all undergraduate students. Location also plays a big role as well, personally I would dismiss any comments that involve students living in dorms as "Yes, so what?" since living on campus or not doesn't really mean anything meaningful versus actually being enrolled at a school. – rjzii Dec 20 '13 at 16:47
  • @rob: I understood (and remain culturally bewildered by) the first half of your comment. Wasn't clear on the second - are you saying the two populations sizes are actually close enough to treat as the same, and I need not be concerned? – Oddthinking Dec 20 '13 at 20:16
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    @Oddthinking No, I think that the number of students enrolled is a more meaningful measure than the number of enrolled students living in the dorms. There are too many other factors involved in why a student may or may not be living in the dorms to make meaningful comparisons. – rjzii Dec 20 '13 at 20:33
  • I agree that students living in the dorms is not a particularly meaningful measurement. I attend a university in a relatively conservative area of the U.S. and only 26% of the students live on campus with the majority of those being freshmen. – reirab Sep 2 '14 at 18:14

Right now, the answer is no, though at the time Obama made the claim the answer was yes. In both cases the numbers are very close. (Thanks to LessPop_MoreFizz for pointing out that the statement was accurate when Obama made it.)

Data on the number of male African Americans in Federal, state, and local prisons and jails are available from the Bureau of Justice statistics here

Data on the number of male African Americans enrolled in college are available from the US Census Bureau here

They each contain the values for a number of recent years, which I have listed below. Up until 2006 there were more African American men in prison than enrolled in college. Since then, the reverse has been true - primarily because the college numbers have risen significantly.

        Prisoners   College Students    Prisoners per 100 Students
2000    791,600         635,300                 125
2005    806,200         774,100                 104
2006    836,800         795,400                 105
2007    814,700         838,100                 97
2008    846,000         911,800                 93
2009    841,200         1,037,100               81

The data are available for white men as well, and the equivalent values are strikingly different:

        Prisoners   College Students    Prisoners per 100 Students
2000    663,700         4,634,600                   14
2005    688,700         5,007,200                   14
2006    718,100         5,046,200                   14
2007    755,500         5,146,100                   15
2008    712,500         5,302,900                   13
2009    693,800         5,594,400                   12
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    It's important to note that, at the time the claims in question were made (2000, 2007), the most recent data that would have been available would have made the statements accurate. The NPR quotation from the question is particularly problematic, as it uses 2013 data to 'refute' a soundbite form 2007, which was most likely based on information from 2006, which, this answer demonstrates, would have made that soundbite accurate. – LessPop_MoreFizz Dec 22 '13 at 1:54
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    It is pretty clear that the change in number of college students accounts for the change in ratio: the prisoners presumably weren't going anywhere, while the number of African Americans in college soared. I guess college keeps people out of prison. Maybe they like it better there. – user29285 Oct 24 '15 at 19:43

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