America continues to have both the highest incarceration rate as well as the largest prison population of any country in the world. With nearly one percent of its entire population locked up at any given time, the United States produces more convicted felons than any other country on Earth.
It has long been known that one of the strongest predictors that an ex-offender will stay out of prison for good is whether or not they are gainfully employed. One study found that 93 percent of all ex-cons who stayed employed after release managed to avoid reoffending while more than 50 percent of those who could not secure steady work ended up back in prison.
Work can give ex-offenders a sense of hope and purpose. It can provide them with a meaningful way to spend their time. And, for many, it can give them a real sense of being an important part of their community.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the best online degrees for felons, hopefully resulting in meaningful and fulfilling employment that can help give them the purposeful life that they need to stay out of prison for good.
Especially for felons, education must be aimed at realistic goals
Unfortunately, the American system of higher education has become something of a minefield over the last two decades, not just for felons but for all students. Many degrees cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but offer no concrete employment prospects.
While all students must be extremely careful that they are investing their time and money in an educational path that is likely to result in getting a good job, felons have to be triply careful. Many states throughout the country are increasingly coming to grips with the enormous costs of barring convicted felons from employment, a group that may represent up to 30 percent of the male population in some of the nation’s poorest areas. Still, there are a number of fields where it simply isn’t likely that anyone with a felony on their criminal record is likely to find employment.
Later in the article, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the educational tracks that felons should mostly avoid. But there are also many lines of work where those with felony records can not only survive but also thrive. Let’s take a look at the top paths to meaningful and well-compensated employment for ex-offenders.
If you’re using your natural talents, you’ll love doing what you become good at
When it comes to career advice, you’ll hear a lot of talk about doing what you love. That is great for the very few people who know exactly what it is they want to do with their lives from a young age. But for the vast majority of us, doing what you love is a product of finding what you’re good at, what pays decent money and then studying to become the best that you can possibly be at your chosen profession.
For those doing time, it may be possible to find out what they’re good at while they’re still in prison. Many prisons offer college-level courses. It is never a bad idea to pursue as many college credits as possible while still inside. And some prisons, especially at lower security levels, may offer inmates the chance to pursue online degrees from accredited universities. Few things will better your chances of staying out of the system for good than leaving prison with an in-demand online degree.
Whether you’re still in prison and able to pursue training there, or you’ve been released and want to start towards a well-paid career, here are some of the top online degrees for felons.
Working in restaurants is a great option for many with felony records. The restaurant business, as a whole, almost always has a need for high-quality cooks and chefs. And this field is often far laxer when it comes to background checks and who employers will hire.
There are many options for online degrees in the culinary arts, which can considerably improve one’s chances of landing a job in this field. Additionally, every major city in the country has hundreds of kitchen jobs, making this one of the most location-independent fields you can choose. It is also one of the easiest in which to quickly find work.
Although a culinary arts degree won’t get you the highest-paid jobs in the country, at a median salary of $43,000, working as a chef can provide a nice lifestyle throughout most of the U.S.
Computer science and programming
Computer science is an excellent choice for ex-felons with the disposition and the talent to become good computer programmers or even computer scientists. Companies across the country, but especially in places like California, Texas and the Eastern Seaboard, are constantly looking for qualified computer programmers. And despite what you may have heard, demand for qualified workers to fill these positions is currently near all-time highs.
What’s better, employers looking to fill computer programming and computer science positions often have very few restrictions on who they are willing to hire. In fact, computer programming is generally one of the most meritocratic jobs that exist; if you’re good enough to do the work, you’re good enough to get hired in at top dollar.
This brings us to another big plus for felons who are considering pursuing computer programming: The pay can be excellent, with top-end programmers, database managers and app developers often receiving salaries well into the mid-six-figure range.
Some subdisciplines within the computer-science field include app development, database management and data wrangling, game design, computer security and network administration. Each of these fields require quite different skillsets. So, if you are interested in going in a computer science direction, at some point it will become necessary to choose a specialty so that you can channel your online education in a direction that is most likely to result in high-paying employment.
There are many great options for those who would like to pursue an education in computer science-related fields. For some, getting a bachelor’s degree from an accredited and widely recognized online university like Arizona State may give them a big advantage. But other far less-expensive options, such as Udemy and even free programs like W3 Schools, which often offer certifications, may also make good sense for those who are willing to save a lot of money up front by starting much lower on the employment ladder.
This touches on another great educational strategy for those with felony records that we’ll delve into a bit later. For many professions, it’s possible to avoid paying tuition for an online school altogether, using free online schools to gain the requisite knowledge and certification. You can then become self-employed, an option that ensures that you will never have to worry about what you put on your resume, nor will you ever have to worry about getting fired.
Ultimately, deciding exactly what kind of computer programming job you would like to pursue and then devising an educational strategy to help you get there is the best move. If you would like to work at a big-name Silicon Valley enterprise like Google, shelling out the money up front for a bachelor’s degree from an accredited, recognizable school is probably going to be a smart move. However, if you are fine with making a little less money and living in a place like the Midwest where your dollars stretch much farther, then going with a cheap or even free online education and working your way up as an independent contractor will often be a smart play.
Becoming a mechanic
Not all jobs at which felons can do well involve getting a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent level of education. In some cases, some who are still serving out their sentences may have access to educational opportunities in the trades that can prepare them for a very lucrative and in-demand skillset the second they are granted parole.
One of those fields is car, truck, bus and heavy equipment maintenance. Mechanics work in a wide variety of specialties, which include everything from routine vehicle checkups at shops like Goodyear all the way up to building custom engines for high-performance specialty vehicles.
The automotive maintenance and repair industry is both huge and highly fragmented, meaning that there are thousands of independent businesses across the country that represent the majority of shops rather than a few large corporations that tightly control nearly the entire market. Again, this is good for felons because, as a general rule, local business owners who can see, firsthand, your skills and the value you create are far more likely to look the other way when it comes to your criminal record. Corporate human-resources departments are the most likely prospective employers to automatically disqualify someone due to a criminal history.
On top of this, many prisons at lower security levels may offer courses in automotive repair. These courses can be just as good at building those same skills at big-name trade schools. Even as a backup option, if you have the opportunity to learn mechanical skills while serving your sentence, there will be nothing but upside when you get out.
It is possible to get online certifications for automotive repair. But if you are serious about pursuing a career as a mechanic, you will likely want to enroll in a trade school of some kind unless you already possess the core skills. In certain cases, employers may offer to fully train you on the job.
Automotive mechanics typically make around $40,000 per year. But those who specialize in high-demand fields, such as diesel repair, and those who rise to own their own shops can make far more.
Additionally, ex-offenders with mechanical skills who also have good interpersonal abilities are well positioned to get into one of the most lucrative side hustles that currently exist: car flipping. With a market that ranges from $500 beaters all the way up to million-dollar supercars, those who can learn to fix vehicles, clean and prepare them for resale and then successfully market and sell them to the public can quickly find themselves generating more cashflow than they could have ever imagined. Many self-starting ex-offenders have pursued this route to becoming their own bosses, which can produce monthly income as high as the five-figure range for top flippers.
For those with the ambition and discipline to traverse a longer educational track, engineering can be a great career choice that can offer some of the highest-paying jobs that you’ll find. And while some of the largest firms hiring engineers may discriminate against those with felony convictions, like computer programming, engineering is a highly meritocratic field. As a rule, if you can do the work, you’ll get the job, no matter what mistakes you may have made in the past.
Engineering is a broad field. Positions include everything from structural engineering to robotics and automation to chemical engineering. Salaries can be highly variable, depending on location, specialty and education level. But typical engineering positions will start at around the $65,000 mark and go up from there, almost without limit. For instance, chemical engineers in management positions who are willing to travel internationally often make well over $200,000 per year. Top-paid industry leaders with highly sought skills can make far more than that.
Engineering disciplines are rigorous, requiring extensive education and certification. But the number of options to acquire engineering credentials from online schools has never been higher. While you aren’t going to pick up top-flight engineering skills for free, as you may well be able to do with computer programming, you can get excellent online degrees from accredited and widely recognized schools for under $30,000. For some ex-offenders who are living on the cheap, this is a cost that will easily be recouped in their first year of work.
However, because you will almost certainly need to shell out some serious money or take out loans if you’re planning on pursuing an engineering degree, you should carefully consider all of your options. Make sure that you really want to follow this career and that you have both the disposition and natural abilities to prevail. Having tens of thousands of dollars in student debt racked up in your name for a degree that you won’t use is far worse than going for many of the lower-cost career tracks at your disposal.
Self-employment, freelancing and side hustling
One of the most common routes to success that many entrepreneurially inclined ex-offenders have taken is to become freelancers, independent contractors or small business owners. Many people who have served time in prison are naturally inclined to being their own boss. And it turns out that not only is being naturally attracted to autonomy in one’s own profession not necessarily a bad thing, but in the world of freelancing and small business ownership, it’s actually a huge asset.
Although prison is not a nice place, not every aspect of serving time is necessarily a negative experience. Many ex-offenders find that when they get out, the program that they were on while inside can easily translate into enormously productive habits on the outside, with just a few tweaks and rededication of their time to new business-related tasks. For prisoners who can develop a strong program on the outside and who have the desire to be their own boss, the sky truly is the limit for the success that can be achieved as independent contractors, business owners and freelancers.
Start small, dream big
The great thing about freelancing for ex-offenders is that you can start as small as you need to, effectively getting paid on-the-job training. And the return on investment that you’ll get will, hands down, exceed anything you’ll see in any other field. That’s because when you’re self-employed, you can look at the market and decide, based on where the current demand is, exactly what skills you’re going to develop and what strategy you will use to maximize earnings and grow your business.
Sites like Upwork, YourMechanic, GigSalad and even Fiverr list jobs in every category where services are needed. For those who may be interested in flipping cars or getting involved in real estate investing, there are thousands of sites, including online-education sites like Udemy, where you can find everything you need to build the required skills and knowledge.
With many freelancing jobs, such as those you might find that list content-creation, video editing, music or web-development gigs, you can start at the lowest-end jobs after a short period of familiarizing yourself with the basics of the field you choose. As you gain experience, most sites allow more experienced and skilled freelancers to move up the ranks quickly, making $20 per hour or more in their first year.
As you continue gaining experience, knowledge and skills, you will also be developing a portfolio that you can use to shop your services around to offline businesses. For example, while good recording engineers can make as much as $50 per hour on sites like Upwork, building a strong portfolio and becoming a known recording engineer in a city like Los Angeles could easily quadruple that figure.
Perhaps best of all, as a freelancer, you don’t have to concentrate on just one field. If you see that strong market demand is driving premium prices in a given field, you can use online resources to gain skills in that area while continuing to take the best-paying jobs in your core areas of competence. This sort of diversification of income can prove to be a highly lucrative strategy, allowing you to only choose the highest-paying jobs among a far larger universe of potential gigs than what simply concentrating on one area would give you.
And on top of all of this, you cannot be fired, you never have to submit to a background check, and you never have to work a minute that you don’t want to. However, one downside to freelancing or owning your own business is that you don’t get the same benefits that you would as an employee.
As someone with a felony, there are certain educational paths you should avoid
There are certain fields towards which ex-offenders should avoid even beginning an educational track because the chances of finding employment as an ex-felon are small. The time and money expended will be far better used in the many fields where felons can not only find work, but also thrive in their vocations.
In general, felons should avoid studying fields in which they are unlikely to be permitted to work
There are a number of fields where it may be possible to find work as an ex-con but where actually landing a well-paying job is unlikely. The good news is that if you have been convicted of a felony at some point in your past, there are a ton of career fields in which you can not only make great money but can also find meaningful, challenging and even fun work.
The bad news is that there are a number of fields in which it is not likely that you will be able to find a job. In some cases, employers and licensing boards may distinguish between those who have been convicted of violent versus nonviolent felonies. In others, it may be possible to obtain a professional license or employment in a job that bars felons after a certain number of years has elapsed since your conviction.
However, unless you know for certain that you have a viable career path towards eventual employment, you should probably avoid studying the following fields as a convicted felon:
- Anything that involves children. While your conviction probably has nothing to do with offenses against children, almost all schools, daycare facilities, pediatric offices and other jobs that involve children will be strictly off limits to anyone with a felony conviction in their past.
- Accounting or any job that involves money. While it may be possible that some employers might consider certain felons for high-trust jobs like accounting, most of these jobs require extensive background checks. And because executives of businesses have fiduciary duties to shareholders that potentially open them up to personal liability for egregiously bad hiring mistakes, it is exceedingly unlikely that they will even risk hiring anyone with a felony record for jobs with access to company funds.
- Any job that involves responsibility over others’ lives. As a convicted felon, it is highly unlikely that you will ever be hired as a doctor, airline pilot or cruise ship captain. However, for those who have not been convicted of alcohol- or drug-related crimes, it is possible that performing jobs like cargo piloting or over-the-road trucking may become available, especially after a certain number of years has elapsed since the conviction. However, you should be absolutely sure that the field for which you are planning on training offers realistic prospects for someone with your criminal record.
- Jobs in the legal profession and law enforcement. It may be possible in some states for ex-convicts to become lawyers, cops, private detectives or other law-enforcement or legal-related fields. But as a general rule, it will be very difficult with anyone carrying a felony on their record to find work in these areas.
If you have a felony, and you are still determined to work in these fields, it never hurts to research and see if there is any workaround for rules that prevent felons from being employed. But you should also have a brutally realistic mindset about prospects and be willing to direct your energy and talents where they are likely to be most handsomely rewarded.