Qadree Jacobs left federal prison in August after serving 15 years - 40 percent of the 37 years he's lived - for convictions on gun and drug charges.

He left the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) last week after completing his first semester. He's going back for more, with plans for an associate's degree in journalism or behavioral sciences.

Jacobs was one of nine new college students who gathered last week to talk about the transition from cell to classroom. His 18-year-old son, who is about to graduate from high school, sat with him. Jacobs said he was trying to lead by example.

"This is what I prayed for, to be able to be released, to be able to come home, be with my son, see him graduate and do something with my life," Jacobs said later. "I know there's something big out there for me. I'm trying to find out what it is."

We've come a long way from "ex-cons" to "returning citizens," how we now refer to people after they put prison in the past.

If your gut reaction is to write off these lives as a loss, let's pause here to point out that the loss is coming out of your pocket. Locking up people is expensive. It costs about $42,000 per year for the Philadelphia Prison System or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to house an inmate.

The city had about 7,300 inmates as of last week. The state prison population was about 50,000.

Federal prison runs more than $30,000 per year for each of the 200,000 or so inmates nationwide.

So it's not cheap.

Ask yourself: Would it be better if those inmates were, as soon as legally possible, collecting paychecks and paying the same taxes we all shell out to pay for prisons and the other costs of governing a society?

Jacobs says he takes full responsibility for the time he spent in prison after a conviction for participating in a ring that sold crack cocaine, and for his clashes with the law before that.

And he knows some people will think any money spent to help him and other former inmates reenter society is a waste.

I asked him how he would explain to someone why that is not true.

"Because I could easily be in their house right now," he said, talking about a life of crime he wants to keep in the past. "But I'm trying to do something positive with myself."

It's not easy. And it doesn't always take on the first try. CCP's Reentry Support Project started the semester with 17 students. Eight didn't finish, some because of parole violations.

But many stick with it. Donald "Guy" Generals, the college's president, said the program has served more than 500 people and has a 90 percent "persistence rate." That is the measure of students who continue from the first semester to the second.

That rate, Generals noted, is higher than the college population as a whole.

The program, run by the Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society, has been supported by grants from the state corrections department and just won an innovation grant from the college it calls home.

Kathy Smith, director of the center, notes that returning-citizen students pay their tuition as many of the college's other students do: via a mix of Pell Grants and federal loans, if they qualify.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, who will be sworn into office in two weeks, passed out certificates to Jacobs and the other new students last week.

"You have dignity," he said. "You have worth. We value your citizenship."

Kenney promised to heed the advice, and then get out of the way, of experts already working to help returning citizens.

And he said something about the city's future performance that struck me as words his listeners could appreciate - the kind of words you hear people say when they're making a hard play for a second chance, like someone getting out of prison.

"The proof is in what we do, not in what we say," Kenney told the men and their families. "A lot of people say a lot of things but don't follow through."