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Late last year, we walked into the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, or “Oakdale” as it’s known locally, named for the boulevard on which it is located in the quiet town of Coralville.

Oakdale is also a prison.

A few minutes, metal detectors and secure doors later, we were seated at round tables in a gymnasium talking with college students of all ages and backgrounds about their postsecondary experiences. Oakdale, in partnership with the University of Iowa, enrolls 90 students, who receive instruction in a variety of courses.

Courses range from “The Sociology of Sport” to “Songwriting and Singing in a Prison Choir” and are primarily taught in person through the University of Iowa or through an associate-degree program with Iowa Central Community College.

Similar to other correctional facilities, this Iowa prison disproportionately houses people of color, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and people without college degrees. The American criminal justice system is filled with individuals from these underserved and marginalized groups, who stand to benefit from receiving high-quality educational opportunities.

Related: Diverse future of the Midwest has already arrived in one Iowan school

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. We imprison nearly 7 of every 1,000 people in America, compared to the global median rate of 1 in 1,000.

In Iowa, 8,400 people are currently serving time in state or federal prisons. At Oakdale, 300 of the 1,200 beds at the medium-security facility are occupied by general population (with the other 900 reserved for those being classified in preparation for transfer to another facility, or who reside at Oakdale to be near the University of Iowa’s hospitals and clinics due to medical needs).

Our criminal justice system contains the populations whom the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) was originally intended to reach. Since the Higher Education Act was enacted more than half a century ago, the landscape of higher education has shifted. Today, thanks to a sustained focus on equity, a more accessible postsecondary system is being realized, especially for students from historically marginalized groups.

HEA policies and programs continue to help more students attend and graduate from college, even those who are incarcerated. At the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), we are striving to make HEA more responsive to these students’ needs through full restoration of Pell grant eligibility, but we are also having critical conversations with correctional and postsecondary leaders about how to ensure academic rigor and quality for the growing number of students who are being educated while incarcerated.

Thanks to Iowa’s prison partnerships between IHEP and several higher education in-prison programs, including Oakdale and the University of Iowa’s Liberal Arts Beyond Bars, we are now focused on this underserved — and often invisible — group of students. To facilitate learning and promote high-quality educational opportunities for those who are incarcerated, IHEP is developing a Key Performance Indicators Impact Framework that will yield valuable data to inform program quality, develop robust standards of practice and, most importantly, improve student outcomes.

By gathering best practices from institutions that have already navigated the complex world of corrections and academic instruction, more postsecondary institutions can offer high-quality educational instruction to these students. To do this work well requires courageous leaders who see promise and potential in their students. Both the leadership at Oakdale and the  postsecondary institutions in Iowa’s prison partnerships understand the value of education and are thus willing to collaborate and develop creative on-ramps for their students.

For example, the willingness of Oakdale’s warden to work with — and trust — UI LABB leaders and faculty is critical to the success of the program. Oakdale’s leaders also trust the students to provide feedback on the curriculum and have some agency over their academic study. This involvement is unique given the norms and culture of correctional facilities, where leadership typically dictates nearly every aspect of inmates’ lives.

The expansion of Oakdale’s program to move beyond a speaker’s series into a credit-bearing, degree-granting college program that incorporates the Iowa Central Community College associate-degree program is in no small part the result of the students’ input; through their feedback, incarcerated students helped co-create an institute’s impactful program. Building space for student feedback and choice into a program’s DNA is one crucial element of  success. Successful partnerships between higher education and correctional institutions, like Iowa’s prison partnerships, can be incredible forces for good. Whether a program is offered in-person, online or as a hybrid model — through a community college, liberal arts college or research university — there are numerous and diverse approaches. Some colleges and universities have long histories of bringing the power of education into correctional facilities and reaching woefully underserved populations through these programs.

Through the Key Performance Indicators initiative, impressive results for students and communities delivered by successful programs can inspire strong and intentional commitments by other institutions to make the necessary investments and adjustments to serve incarcerated students equitably with their campus-based counterparts.

Related: Propelling prisoners to bachelor’s degrees in California

To responsibly serve its population, any institution that considers establishing a program must first develop strong partnerships.

Then it must seek out best practices for curriculum design, instructional delivery and student supports. These initial steps provide an essential foundation, upon which employing a performance-indictor framework can help measure and assess quality.

This quality education positively affects not only the incarcerated students themselves; we hear regularly from correctional leaders that programs improve interactions within a facility, and from business leaders of workforce improvements, like in Iowa’s prison partnerships.

Next May, the first group of Oakdale graduates will earn their associate degrees and continue in the University of Iowa’s bachelor of liberal studies (BLS) program.

In the words of Shane K., who will earn his BLS degree at Oakdale next year: “Education isn’t just something that contributes to the person getting the education. When someone receives an education, it is a gift to their whole family, friends and countless other people in their community; it is a gift to all of society.”

This story about college degrees for incarcerated individuals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Julie Ajinkya is vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and co-author of “In Consideration of Reinstating Pell for Incarcerated Students.”

Heather Erwin is director of the University of Iowa’s Liberal Arts Beyond Bars program and a consultant with the Institute for Higher Education Policy on postsecondary justice.

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Julie Ajinkya is vice president of applied research at the Institute of Higher Education Policy and co-author of In "Consideration of Reinstating Pell for Incarcerated Students."

Heather Erwin is the director of University of Iowa Liberal Arts Behind Bars program and a consultant with the Institute of Higher Education Policy on  postsecondary justice. 

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  1. So I’m really uncomfortable with the fact that everybody it’s so excited that they’re putting prisoners go to college don’t get me wrong that part of great that’s awesome everybody should be given a second or third chance even because some of us started with while I’m not a chance in the world in the first place. This is my concern you haven’t solved anything but go ahead pat yourself on the back for giving the illusion that you have let people coming out of prison better themselves once they get out of prison. side to it unfortunately we’ve only address one of course backwards guess that’s how we do it here in America doesn’t really make sense to have people go to college to get their degrees only to go out attempt to get employed in the field they just graduated from and not get hired because their background check didn’t quite make the cut. It all sounds good on paper until you’re the one that goes to prison goes to college does the work gets the degree or certificate not to mention graduates with honors and then doesn’t get the job because of their background their background is still there to prevent them from being positive productive members of society. Not to mention now you have student loans to pay for sure am glad I stuck all that money into getting my degree sure does look good on the wall that’s about it oops sorry you wasted the last two to four years of your life trying to better yourself to become a better person and a productive member of society only to get Smacked Down with the very real harsh reality of exactly that. So I don’t think we can celebrate this problem solved. Its only made it worse. How about you separate mental illness substance abuse and criminal activity. People that have substance abuse problems aren’t criminals they are already suffering nobody wakes up one day and decides that they want to be addicted to drugs yep that’s what I want to do I want to be hooked on meth I think that’s my goal. And I’m not saying that people on drugs don’t commit crimes so the people that aren’t drugs. The whole point of even discussing drugs is that our prison population is mostly filled people who have been convicted for drugs for their addictions. Not going to go any further into that that’s a whole nother topic that this country is apparently too lazy address. So my advice would be to somehow figure out a way stop criminalizing the people coming out of prison who have served their time for the crimes they have committed and give them a fresh slate which will only be done if we are able to remove that stuff from their background and actually give him a fair chance after they put in the time the work going to classes and college. I would actually give him a chance to use that degree they worked hard for an earned.

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