Professor Mike Ryan and a Scholar

Building Financial Literacy for Incarcerated Students

Georgetown Professor Mike Ryan’s teaching has a simple goal: to help students better manage their finances. 

Since 2000, Ryan has taught an undergraduate course on Georgetown’s main campus titled Personal Finance, which introduces students to finance basics and helps strengthen their financial literacy. Offered through the Georgetown University College of Arts & Sciences, the course has become a favorite among students preparing to navigate professional life. 

For Ryan, people of all ages, experiences, and backgrounds can benefit from learning how to manage their money. So when the Prisons and Justice Initiative started offering courses for incarcerated students at the D.C. Jail through the Prison Scholars Program, he was eager to bring his teaching to a new classroom. 

“We all need certain skills to navigate our financial lives,” Ryan said. “And it’s not about creating wealth or trying to amass as much money as you can, and it’s not so much about earning money. It’s about handling or managing the money that you do earn. And it’s a topic that is interesting to all of us.” 

When Ryan first started teaching with the Prison Scholars Program, he had to adjust to teaching students that were typically older and more experienced with money than his undergraduates. He said that he soon realized the diversity of ages and backgrounds in a D.C. Jail classroom fostered an engaging and dynamic learning environment.

Ryan speaking at the Fall 2022 Prison Scholars End of Semester Celebration.

“Unlike the undergrads, my students in the prison are very, very active,” Ryan said. “You go in to start a class and everybody’s talking. Everybody has a point of view. At every point, we all learn from one another.”

Ryan’s course quickly became beloved among the Prison Scholars. According to PJI Program Associate Colie “Shaka” Long, who took Ryan’s class while he was still incarcerated, the course was an opportunity for him and his classmates to learn about a topic they were interested in. 

“He broke down the concept of money and how people only see money at a store value,” Long said. “People with education see money as opportunity. It was not about making money but how you manage it.”

Preparing Scholars for life after release

Though Ryan’s teaching philosophy is the same for all of his students, his course at the D.C. Jail prepares Scholars specifically for managing money upon release and easing their transition home to create a more stable start for the future.

“The people that I teach, hopefully, will all get out of prison at various times,” Ryan said. “And they will be a little better prepared to handle their money and manage it and deal with the issues that we all deal with.”

According to Long, learning about topics like budgeting skills and misconceptions about credit cards helped him immediately develop savings when he got home. 

“The most important thing about the class is that the things he teaches you, you can apply in real life,” Long said. “I’ve only been home six months …but I have more money in my savings now than some of my family members. And I was learning about this when I was incarcerated. When I came home and reflected on what I learned in the program, I realized I’m more advanced than a lot of people around me.”

Ryan, who will teach Personal Finance at the D.C. Jail during the spring 2023 semester, said that the Prison Scholars Program has made him a better teacher and learner, emphasizing that educators should continue to get involved in prison education.

“I would encourage others, other instructors and professors to consider teaching, if they had the time and the inclination,” Ryan said. “I find it to be fun. It’s helped me manage my own financial affairs. And these types of courses are so needed, I think it’s fulfilling an important gap.”

Prison Scholars