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New Report Emphasizes the Importance of Research on Higher Ed Prison Programs

With the Second Chance Pell pilot program extended to 2020, a new report released by Ithaka S+R details the need for comprehensive research into higher education for incarcerated individuals.

Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit research organization that works to advance knowledge and improve teaching and learning, released the report “Unbarring Access: A Landscape Review of Postsecondary Education in Prison and Its Pedagogical Supports.” An overview of existing research, the report noted the lack of available data and the need to further examine methods and outcomes.

Meagan Wilson, one of the authors of the report, said that other than recidivism metrics, little is known about the programming offered. While it appears to be a positive contributor in curtailing mass incarceration, to maximize effectiveness much more needs to be documented in order to develop effective pedagogy.

Meagan WilsonMeagan Wilson

This report examines existing research and policies. It is part of a two-phase project by Ithaka S+R to gain greater insight in higher education in prisons.

“We don’t know how to successfully implement pedagogical supports in these programs because we don’t know about the programs themselves,” said Wilson. “We know about places like Bard College that have a presence, but we don’t even know all of the schools that are doing this. There are so many community colleges or small programs that are doing this in rural or isolated locations and we don’t have an aggregate number.”

The goal, she said, is to quantify the need, see how the landscape is changing and develop adequate supports. This is a crucial time, she added, as technological developments have created change in the scholarly landscape. Typically, prisoners do not have access to the internet, but there is the possibility of providing tablets for study purposes.

“We can’t evaluate which strategies are more effective because we don’t have an aggregate idea of which types of programs are more successful and what the needs are of students inside prison. That hasn’t been recorded,” Wilson said.

From 1965 to 1994, incarcerated individuals were able to apply for and receive Pell Grants, which enabled access to higher education opportunities. That stopped in 1994 with the enactment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. In 2015, the US Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which was set to run from 2016-19 and has since been extended to 2020 at 64 test sites.

“It’s a really critical time to think how we’re going to progress as security measures are changing and as federal money is getting put on the table,” said Wilson. “We need to start learning about some of these programs before we make critical decisions.”

Some data is known at the state level, but there isn’t comprehensive data at the federal level. Wilson said policy makers and practitioners need to know how programs are being administered. Items of interest are graduation rates, return on investment, how transfers are handled (it is not uncommon for inmates to be transferred from one prison to another) and programmatic details.

Wilson said Dr. Erin L. Castro, director of the University of Utah Prison Education Project, assembled a list of approximately 200 institutions that offer credit bearing programs. It has been about 20 years since the Department of Education did a survey of “corrections education.”

“When we think about the standard metrics that we have for higher education, those should really be applied to postsecondary education in prison programs,” said Wilson. “When we look at higher education metrics for student success, we think about things like retention, employment outcomes, salaries, civil engagement, transferability and articulation. These are the types of things we should be capturing for all students in American higher education, and it’s never been captured for the subset of students who are getting this education in prison.”

Several conclusions and recommendations are offered. (1) Standardize educational data collection across U.S. facilities. (2) Identify the effects of postsecondary education in prison on student outcomes. (3) Examine the features of postsecondary education in prison and their effectiveness. (4) Study the effectiveness of Second Chance Pell.

The report also advocates for improvement in data collection standards and recommends convening specialized working groups to examine practices and policies. Wilson said in order to gather informative longitudinal information, there needs to be a standardized method for data capture.

“Colleges and universities need to increase their access,” she said. “We need to have more refined studies and better strategies put in place to monitor and see what is doing well and how we can replicate that going forward.”

Items to examine include the types of subjects taught, the types of degrees and certifications that have shown to be most beneficial and the way those programs are implemented. There should also be information from advisors and re-entry professionals who work with incarcerated individuals taking part in higher education, Wilson said.

Ithaka S+R will conduct two phases of stakeholder interviews to understand academic resources and technologies that support pedagogy in postsecondary education in prison. A capstone public report on the research will be released.

“We’ve been denying education to this population for so long, we really need to think critically and we need to be strategic about the way we go forward and make sure we’re not excluding those who can benefit,” said Wilson.

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