How State Higher Ed Leaders Are Expanding College in Prison

Margaret diZerega Managing Director of Initiatives // Hannah Eddy Communications Manager
Apr 01, 2022

When Jared (who asked to be identified by only his first name) began taking college classes at Turney Center Industrial Complex, a prison in central Tennessee, it was not a love for learning that motivated him—that would come later. Before Turney, Jared had been incarcerated in a private prison. “It’s not very equitable,” Jared shared, reflecting on the opportunities available in various prisons. “Once I got to [Turney] I thought, ‘well how do I just stay here so I don’t have to go back?’” College was his answer.

While at Turney, Jared earned his associate degree in business administration, graduating in 2019. When he was released in 2020, he was eager to pursue a bachelor’s degree and secure a job that would enable him to provide for his family. Jared applied to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) and was rejected not once, but twice.

Closed doors, like the one Jared faced, are common for system-involved students, but the forthcoming reinstatement of federal need-based financial aid—or Pell Grants—for people in prison has the potential to open many doors come July 1, 2023. Across the United States, education and corrections leaders are preparing for a wave of new colleges, particularly four-year universities, to launch programs in prisons. Anticipating this new opportunity to expand access, states like Colorado and Tennessee have begun to bring together four-year and community colleges, departments of corrections, education-focused nonprofits, and—for the first time—state departments of higher education to foster communication among these partners, improve collaboration, and begin creating more effective state systems for higher education in prisons.

By luck, a state legislator familiar with Jared’s predicament ran into UTC’s chancellor and advocated for Jared’s admission. “I think that’s the only way I was able to get in,” said Jared. “I would have liked there to have been a clearer pathway for getting your [associate] degree in prison and transitioning to a four-year school.” Greater collaboration between Tennessee’s community colleges and four-year colleges would likely have helped Jared.

Clear pathways are part of the Tennessee Prison College Coalition (TPCC)’s agenda. TPCC was formed in 2019, around the time Jared was preparing to leave prison. Its membership includes representatives from five state agencies and a nonprofit partner, the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative. “You can’t have high-quality access and choice if you don’t have multiple partners at the table,” said Lauren Solina, the coordinator of special programs for correctional education at Tennessee College of Applied Technology - Murfreesboro. Solina represents the Tennessee Board of Regents, the system of public community and technical colleges, on the TPCC. “We strive to create a culture of education within the prison system.”

Solina sees TPCC as a permanent advisory body responsible for facilitating communication, supporting innovation in facilities, identifying shared challenges, and developing systemic solutions to ensure equity and quality across Tennessee prisons. Most Tennessee prisons are partnered with a community and technical college (a few with pathways to four-year colleges), but as Pell dollars become available, more four-year colleges will likely expand programming into prisons. When this happens, TPCC will be able to help colleges create pathways for incarcerated students, so people like Jared will not need a lucky break to pursue higher education.

In Colorado, Demitrius Herron’s experience has been different from Jared’s. Herron was 18 when he started taking the career technical classes offered at the Youth Offender System (YOS) prison via partnerships with Pueblo Community College and Colorado College. Between these credits and additional credits earned when Trinidad State College began offering classes at YOS, Herron attained two associate degrees in applied technologies and arts. Trinidad State College then helped him get into Colorado State University Pueblo, where Herron is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary bachelor's degree in sociology and business administration.

Stephen Hartnett, a professor of communication at University of Colorado Denver, has taught many students like Herron. “Their transcripts are just immensely complicated,” he said. Although Herron was able to accrue credits through multiple institutions and move into a four-year program without too much trouble, the same cannot be said for all system-involved students.

“The fact that we have this beautiful patchwork of [educational] offerings is great,” said Hartnett, “but from the student’s perspective, it can also be almost paralyzing because there is no centralizing, organizing force.”

Hearing similar conversations about familiar challenges across Colorado, Hartnett helped form a working group of 35 college administrators and professors, DOC and Colorado Department of Higher Education officials, and nonprofit leaders. The group meets once a month to document the current landscape and develop a shared vision for higher education in Colorado prisons. Hartnett is helping to compile this work into a report outlining three recommendations, with an eye toward where Colorado should be when access to Pell Grants is restored and what higher education in Colorado prisons should look like by 2028. Once completed, the report will serve as a guide to help state leaders enact the policy and regulatory changes necessary to make their shared vision a reality. “We’re really trying to come up with an entirely new model of higher education,” Hartnett shared. “We want it to be cooperative, inclusive, transparent, and affordable, and we’re really proud to do that with the DOC.”

States investing in postsecondary education in prison stand to see major payoffs in the form of taxpayer savings and improved public safety, but without collaboration between DOCs, departments of higher education, and colleges, too many doors will remain closed to system-involved students. Now is the time for leaders to build statewide systems of higher education in prisons and uphold their commitment to quality education for all.

This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2020-CZ-BX-K003 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.