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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.

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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.

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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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