Vera Launches National Initiative to Expand Higher Education Opportunities for People Currently and Formerly Incarcerated

NEW YORK, NY―The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) today announced a national initiative to expand access to higher education for people in prison and those recently released. Four leading philanthropic foundations are funding this initiative—the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education (the Pathways Project) addresses the lack of education among correctional populations. It builds on the substantial body of empirical evidence showing that increased educational attainment is a critical factor in keeping people out of prison and helping formerly incarcerated people become contributing members of families and communities.

Directed by Vera, the Pathways Project is a five-year national demonstration effort that will provide selected states with at least $1 million in incentive funding to create an education continuum that begins in prison and continues in the community after release until the student has achieved a degree or professional certification. The project is unique not only for its emphasis on coordination between pre- and post-release programming, but for the partnerships that participating states are required to form with and between state and local officials, corrections and parole agencies, schools of higher education, employers, and community-based service providers.

Specifically, the project aims to:

  • increase postsecondary education attainment among currently and formerly incarcerated people;  
  • increase employability and earnings among formerly incarcerated people;  
  • reduce recidivism and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by crime and incarceration; and  
  • demonstrate that there are cost-effective methods for providing access to postsecondary education and support services for currently and formerly incarcerated people.

While many states currently provide limited education and reentry services, those selected to participate in the Pathways Project will build a continuum that includes:

  • in-prison and post-release postsecondary and vocational education;  
  • in-prison remedial educational programming;  
  • comprehensive in-prison and community-based case planning and support services; and  
  • links to local employers.
“The Pathways Project promises to be a catalyst for fundamental change in how states approach the provision of in-prison and post-release education and reentry support services,” said Vera’s Director Michael Jacobson, adding “by validating what works through independent evaluation, the project hopes to spur national replication and long-term public investment.”
“This path-breaking approach has already shown that it improves and enriches the lives of many individuals,” said Jeannie Oakes, the Ford Foundation’s director of the Educational Opportunity and Scholarship program. “But we also see this as leading to community renewal, as these educated individuals return home prepared to break the vicious cycles of intergenerational poverty and recidivism.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, among federal and state inmates, about 37 percent do not have a high school diploma or a GED, compared to 19 percent of the general population. Seventy-eight percent of the prison population lacks postsecondary education, compared to 49 percent of the general population. Moreover, studies suggest that graduating from college programs can decrease recidivism by approximately 72 percent.

Six states have been invited to apply: Colorado, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Washington. These states received invitations because of their existing efforts in the area of educational and reentry programming and their capacity to support the successful completion of certificate or degree programs by participants. New Jersey, which has already begun planning a similar statewide undertaking, will also take part in the Pathways Project.