New Report Helps Expand Access to Higher Education in Prison

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today released a new report to help expand access to higher education for incarcerated people. It compiles lessons from the field to guide corrections officials, educational providers, and policymakers seeking to build or expand college-in-prison programs.

The report, Making the Grade: Developing Quality Postsecondary Education Programs in Prison, is the latest in a series as part of Vera’s Expanding Access to Postsecondary Education project. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to allow eligible people to pursue postsecondary education in prison through Pell Grants—federal financial aid to which they had been denied access in the 1994 Crime Bill. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 69 colleges and universities were selected out of more than 200 applicants to participate in the initiative. In total, nearly 12,000 students at more than 100 federal and state prisons will receive Pell Grants to pursue higher education. As part of the pilot, Vera will be providing technical assistance to the correctional facilities and their postsecondary partners to implement high quality programs. With support from the Ford Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation, Vera is convening all 69 sites, including higher education and corrections leaders and practitioners, in Washington, DC on July 19th.

A recent study found that people who participate in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not, and that when compared to the costs of re-incarceration, prison education saves $5 for every dollar spent. Despite clear benefits, only 6 percent of people in state prisons are enrolled in postsecondary education programs, in large part due to the 1994 Pell Grant ban.

“Opening up educational doors for people who are incarcerated not only transforms their lives, but also improves prison safety, renews communities, and lifts up future generations,” said Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “We must leverage this opportunity to ensure that the promise of education is successfully fulfilled. The institutional knowledge detailed in this report is an important step towards that goal.”

The report draws on the experiences of practitioners running programs nationwide to identify common challenges and strategies for success in three areas: 

  • Developing college-corrections partnerships. Establishing shared goals and providing training for faculty instructors and facility staff alike can help build a productive alliance between colleges and corrections—the bedrock of any college-in-prison program.  
  • Ensuring quality in postsecondary education programs. To ensure that students can transfer credits and continue their education post-release, education delivered in prison should mirror that in the community as much as possible, which requires overcoming challenges such as limited or no Internet access.  
  • Supporting education post-release. Postsecondary program administrators should work with students to plan for their successful reentry, including by assisting with federal financial-aid forms and identifying which institutions will accept their credits.

The report builds off the work of—and includes recommendations from—Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, which combines in-prison and post-release college classes and a continuum of reentry services to support more than 1,100 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The national advisory board for the Pathways project is meeting in Washington, DC today.