The Chronicle of Higher Education Research Brief: The Expanding Role of College in Prison Education

Reversing a 25-year ban, Congress recently agreed to expand Pell Grants to incarcerated students. Now some 463,000 people behind bars have the opportunity to access higher education. How will colleges respond? And, in the wake of Covid-19, are colleges prepared to offer degree programs to the prison population?

To find out, The Chronicle conducted a survey gathering over 750 responses from college administrators and faculty members, in addition to in-depth interviews with students, instructors, and prison-education experts.

THEI Executive Director, Molly Lasagna, is quoted in the Chronicle's Research Brief saying;

“The prison system is already intentionally structured to divide people from each other,” said Molly Lasagna, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, a nonprofit that works with the state’s corrections department and participating colleges. “One of the benefits we bring is drawing students into community with each other, with their professors, and with the free-world staff.”In states like Tennessee, where college funding is at least partly tied to completion, colleges that roll out prison programs too quickly could be penalized if students don’t graduate, Lasagna said. Even with Pell Grants, incarcerated students often need wraparound support like counseling and intensive advising, as well as help staying enrolled when they switch facilities or are released into the community.Because of these and other challenges, colleges with declining enrollment that look to prison education as a way to make money will likely be disappointed, Lasagna said. “This population of students is not going to generate a lot of revenue for your school. An incredibly high percentage of students are indigent — certainly while they’re incarcerated, where in Tennessee the majority of people are making 17 cents an hour.”

Read the full report here.