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3 crucial steps to supporting incarcerated students

August 27, 2015

Now is a critical time for higher education to work collaboratively for prison reform. Currently, the U.S. prison system is filled with 2.3 million people, many of them male and from minority backgrounds—populations most underserved by higher education as a whole. Prison sentences devastate individual inmates and their networks of family and friends, cost taxpayers billions of dollars per year, and rob local economies of potentially productive workers.

Step 1: Consider the federal pilot

To unlock the potential of these individuals and strengthen their communities, colleges must be willing to invest in incarcerated people’s futures, regardless of their pasts. The Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has the potential to offers a clear pathway for colleges to reach and support community members behind bars. The first step to do so, if this aligns with institutional priorities, is to become a test site for the Second Chance program by applying to participate in the pilot.

Step 2: Ensure staff buy-in with outcomes data

Opposition to Obama’s ‘Pell for Prisoners’ announcement has largely centered around a question of prioritizing resource investments: Why spend scarce institutional resources (time, energy, finances) on people who have broken the law when that money could be spent on the thousands of other students who need that attention?

Leaders should anticipate similar questions from staff and faculty on campus questioning the need to expand already thin resources to incarcerated individuals. To address this concern, college leaders must arm themselves with facts from the many research studies done on the effect of prison education programs on recidivism, post-release employment, earnings outcomes, and college enrollment rates. Emphasize to staff that there are clear and measurable returns on investing in prison education programs, to the individual, to the college, and to society as large.

A RAND study showed that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, $4 to $5 are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs. Another study from the Virginia Department of Corrections found that prisoners taking either academic or vocational college courses were several times more likely to enroll in a state community college upon their release than ex-offenders overall and had performed better in courses than their non-incarcerated peers.

Step 3: Build a pathway to completion, online or on campus

Opening doors and preparing campus constituents to embrace prison education programs are critical first steps, but in order for these programs to succeed, incarcerated individuals must want to enroll—and complete a credential. While there is ample demand among U.S. prisoners for greater enrichment opportunities, colleges should also invest in creating clear pathways for students to complete credentials and realize the full benefits of securing a post-secondary credential.

How well is your college actually doing Pathways?

Suppose an incarcerated student completes a few courses through a prison education program offered through your college, and is released from prison before completing enough credits to earn a credential. Task an individual or group on campus to create a plan for fully supporting your prisoner education program from student enrollment to completion. Questions to start a group discussion are provided below:

1. Are students enrolled in the prison education program treated like all other students enrolled at our institution, with respect to data entry and record keeping (e.g., student ID, college transcript, etc.)?

2. How do students enrolled in a prison education program choose an academic program and set of courses that suits their interests and career aspirations?

3. How is our institution notified when a student enrolled in our prison education program is scheduled for release or transfer?

4. Is there a communication plan in place to encourage recently released prisoners to continue with their post-secondary education by enrolling in our college on-campus or online?

5. Do students enrolled in the prison education program know how to access their own transcript information should they need to transfer to another college following their release?

6. What support resources are available to formerly incarcerated students who continue their enrollment at our college?

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