This past week, more than 60 inmates at the Utah State Prison donned caps and gowns. For the duration of their commencement exercises these inmates were not viewed as convicted criminals. They were proud college graduates, having earned their associate degrees from Salt Lake Community College while behind bars.

In many respects, this graduating class has beaten the odds. They stand out because they have completed some post-secondary education. In the face of shrinking state funding for educational programs in the state prison, student numbers have dwindled as more and more programs have been cut and waiting lists for the few remaining slots grow longer.

We're going to venture that as higher education costs have increased at state colleges and universities, it is politically unpopular for state lawmakers to allocate funds to provide college courses to inmates. But at the same time, a strong argument can be made for the benefits that can be derived from providing these programs. Lawmakers should boost the funding for them.

Most prison inmates return to society. It makes sense that they re-enter with the education or training they need to earn a living wage. Education helps people become better citizens. More importantly, they tend not to return to prison. Of 37 students who earned degrees from Utah State University while that program was operating, none has returned to jail after their release from prison. That's a very important cost savings for the prison.

These educational programs, many of which were discontinued when state funding was cut, are important for inmates and prison staff. Inmates begin to view themselves as people of worth. They begin to contemplate a future in which they can put their education to work. Meanwhile, they become better inmates, which helps to ease the load of the correctional staff.

In this season of graduation, state lawmakers should pay careful attention to this recent class of graduates from Salt Lake Community College. Next week, more than 100 inmates will receive their high school diplomas from South Park Academy. Many of them may want further educational opportunities.

As any graduate will tell you, earning a diploma gives one a sense of accomplishment. More important, it opens doors to other possibilities. In the case of prison inmates, Utahns should want them to have high aspirations when they return to their respective communities. Increasing the funding for college education programs at the state's prisons would enable more inmates to stretch their minds and their human potential.