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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.

http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/By-the-Numbers-More-Black-Men-in-Prison-Than-in-College-Think-Again-.aspx

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

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    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
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Right now, the answer is no, though in 2007 when Obama made the claim the answer was yes. In both cases the numbers are very close.

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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    Can you go to college while in prison? That would probably be very useful to make prisoners not return to jail. – gnasher729 Jun 8 at 9:18
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    Notably, the prison : student ratio seems to be awfully high internationally even without the racial differences. A quick glance at first Google results for recent numbers in Germany comes up with some 46,000 prisoners vs. 2,900,000 students or less than 2 prisoners per 100 students (though admittedly comparability of definitions of "prisoner", "student" needs to be checked) – Hagen von Eitzen Jun 8 at 14:34
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    @DavePhD I realized where the hole in the data came from. Table 5 has the categories split between full time and part time enrollment, I was only looking at full time. That being said, the data is for 2007, where the data available for the claim would have been 2006, which would have made the claim correct at the time of utterance. – GOATNine Jun 8 at 20:27

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