It looks like any other graduation -- except these graduates earned their degrees in prison

Larry Marshall (left) and fellow graduates sit at their commencement. They received Associate of Arts degrees from Washington University in St. Louis through the school's Prison Education Project.

(CNN)There was pomp and circumstance. There were caps and gowns. Proud family members sat in the audience.

It looked like just another graduation ceremony -- except it took place at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in the town of Pacific, where all 10 of the graduates are incarcerated.
The graduates received Associate of Arts degrees earlier this week from Washington University in St. Louis, becoming the university's first class of incarcerated graduates. To earn the degree, the men completed 20 courses across disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics -- all while serving time in prison.
Washington University's Prison Education Project is just one of scores of programs across the country that grant liberal arts degrees to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. It's a departure from the vocational training typically offered in prisons, which seeks to find employment for inmates in industries such as welding, plumbing and auto repair after they are released.

    Prison education improves critical thinking

    Carl Brock (left), Mark Boyd and Torey Adams congratulate a fellow student.
    For anyone wondering what benefits learning to solve calculus problems or reading Homer's "The Odyssey" provide to people in prison, Washington University's graduates will tell them: It's the critical thinking skills.
    "Most people end up in prison because of bad decision-making skills," Torey Adams, who has been in prison for nearly 13 years for robbery and armed criminal action, said.
    Over time, Adams said, taking courses such as sociology and archaeology have helped him approach problems differently and have taught him to think things through before making a decision.
    "You can't quite see it when it's happening but some way, somehow, it's teaching you to think critically," he said. "I see how being a Wash U student affects me in other areas of my life."
    Harvey Galler has been in and out of prison five times -- currently, he's serving a five-year sentence for statutory rape. He's set to be released in about seven months, and he said he sees an education as the only real opportunity for him once he's out of prison. The market for trade jobs is saturated and having a criminal record makes getting a job even harder.
    "We've got this mark on us that other people don't have that we've got to compete with, so it's easier for them to get jobs," he said. "If we're able to get this leap ahead with this education, I think that carries a lot more value."
    Robert Henke, director of the school's Prison Education Project and a professor of drama and comparative literature, said he sees a strong determination to learn in his incarcerated students. Many have ambitions of eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, or continuing on to even higher education.
    "There's this kind of intensity, this sense for them that something's really at stake," Henke said.

    It also reduces the risk of returning to prison

    Harvey Galler (right) takes in the moment.