For decades schools have been, rightly, accused of too often letting a toxic mix of low expectations and strict discipline policies put kids, mostly Black, Hispanic and Latino young men, on the school-to-prison pipeline. Now, colleges and universities have the chance to build the inverse path — a prison-to-school pipeline — to help people who are incarcerated.
Done right, this could be a pivotal moment for higher education to also revamp the postsecondary experience for other underserved learners, including those coming from underresourced rural areas and environments that lack college preparation programming.
The potential impact of a prison-to-school pipeline is immense. The change would, of course, be biggest for the nearly 700,000 incarcerated adults who will gain access to federal funds this July through the expansion of the Second Chance Pell program, in terms of lower rates of recidivism and increased hope. This pipeline will also save taxpayers’ money and prevent crime. And these benefits are above and beyond the ways that a college degree increases every graduate’s employment and earning potential.
But first we must build it. Today’s colleges aren’t successfully serving many existing students — so how can they serve populations removed from the education system?
The answers lie in a close examination of the current paths to college and how we can change them to better support all learners.
Let’s start with the challenges people convicted of a crime face. People in prison often had negative experiences in academic environments and, because of this, lower education levels. Many left high school before graduation or have no friends or family who have ever enrolled in college-level courses. As a result, this learner population is often unfamiliar with or lacking in confidence in classroom education.
While many aspects of the incarcerated population’s academic experiences are unique, there are barriers they share with a broad segment of other college-level learners: low digital literacy, minimal or no college preparation, uncertainty about the value of a college degree and unfamiliarity with college resources and processes. These shared characteristics of so many students signal that solutions designed for students who are incarcerated can also minimize barriers for all learners.
One solution for helping incarcerated learners is designing support services. Strategies include supporting specialized coaching and guidance, instituting competency-based education, making investments in student belonging, hiring dedicated people to help students navigate enrollment and fostering communities of peers with similar histories and ambitions — all of which can help students navigate the next steps in their education and efforts to join the workforce.
Taking these steps has a ripple effect. When we think about the individual needs of students within this population, it becomes easier to adapt those services for students in other groups. However, thoughtful support will mean nothing if we don’t increase access to programs.
Paths to and through today’s college experience aren’t fully serving existing students — so how can they serve a population that is often even further removed from the education system?
Currently, there are few educational options for people convicted of a crime. The latest reports show that only 35 percent of state prisons provide college-level courses. These programs serve just 6 percent of incarcerated individuals nationwide, leaving out the majority of incarcerated people interested in increasing their skills and knowledge through higher education.
The gap is even greater for people in women’s prisons. In Texas, there are three times as many college programs for men as there are for women. When given the opportunity to enroll, women show greater interest than men. But the available programs often reinforce outdated stereotypes by limiting options to female-coded professions, such as cosmetology.
This limited availability is similar to the choice constraints experienced by rural students — another population less likely to attend college. Few rural students have the chance to learn where they live, which forces them to choose between commuting several hours to the nearest college or working extra hours to cover the cost of housing on top of tuition for the program of their choice.
Challenges to program expansion are many. Prisons often restrict incarcerated students’ access to educational materials. Prisoners also often lack access to the technology and internet connections needed to take advantage of online learning — as do the 21 million Americans outside the system who lack broadband access.
Prison officials will need to ease restrictions in the pursuit of supporting effective rehabilitation. Fortunately, there are blueprints to follow as state-run and private EdTech companies find new ways to expand prison education.
To increase accessibility, colleges and universities will have to be creative. In many public education programs nationwide, scholarships, employer partnerships, transportation programs and competency-based education are now being adopted to support a diverse set of learners. The same ideas could work for prison education programs.
Building the prison-to-school pipeline is long overdue. The federal government banned the giving of Pell Grants to prisoners for over two decades, then limited access for three more years during the Second Chance Pell Experiment. We’re now starting to see progress in prison education. And it’s happening in parallel with larger efforts in higher education to advance personalized online learning, improve the quality of digital education and close digital equity gaps.
The expansion of Pell Grants represents more than a second chance for students who are incarcerated. The prison-to-school pipeline is higher education’s second chance to ensure more people can get the education they need to live the lives they want.
Jason Levin is executive director of WGU Labs, an EdTech incubation, research and design arm of Western Governors University.
This story about the prison-to-school pipeline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.