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Postsecondary Education for New England's Incarcerated
6 Takeaways from NEBHE's Fall 2021 Legislative Advisory Committee Meeting
Sheridan Miller
State Policy Engagement Specialist
Stephanie Murphy, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Public Policy
As American educator Horace Mann stated, education, “beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” American higher education has as one of its tenets the idea that a high-quality education offers a remedy by which we can reduce inequality of opportunity and end the cycle of poverty.

Perhaps there is no other population for whom this notion is more applicable than the incarcerated. As terrible as the prison experience is, it offers a unique, life-changing opportunity for educational intervention by which people can change the trajectory of their lives. In many cases, a college degree provides people in prison the greatest opportunity to build a new life for themselves upon reentry into society by equipping them with the tools and knowledge they need to navigate the complex realities of modern American life.  

On September 15, 2021, NEBHE’s Legislative Advisory Committee convened a panel of experts to explore the effects of postsecondary educational opportunities for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, as well as legislative strategies for expanding these program offerings in New England. Expert presenters included Dr. Lee Perlman and Carole Cafferty, who co-direct MIT’s The Educational Justice Institute, Jule Hall, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative and current senior program manager of diversity at Amazon, and Sheridan Miller, state policy engagement specialist at NEBHE.
To watch a video recording of the meeting, click the the thumbnail above or visit
Here are 6 takeaways from the discussion: 
1) Prison postsecondary education programs are associated with several well-documented benefits to the incarcerated, their communities, and the economy.

Among the programs' benefits:

  • They significantly reduce recidivism and repeat crime — by as much as 42%. This reduction shrinks the prison population which, in turn, saves taxpayers money. For every dollar spent on prison education programs, taxpayers save $5.
  • They improve the lives of not only the offenders, but also of their families and members of their communities.
  • They change the culture within a prison, breeding fraternity rather than individuality, as well as increasing prisoners' sense of self. 
  • Unemployment rates among the formerly incarcerated is very high. Yet, if more incarcerated people had access to postsecondary education, it is estimated that their unemployment rates would drop by 10%.

2) The Educational Justice Institute’s (TEJI) “inside-out” course delivery model is not only a rich and effective experience for everyone involved, but it is also economical. 

The inside-out model is an innovative pedagogical approach in which incarcerated students (inside) and non-incarcerated students (outside, typically from Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley) are brought into the same classroom to learn and engage together as equals. For non-incarcerated students, the experience gives them a unique chance to get proximate to the problems of America’s prison system. For the incarcerated, the opportunity to take college classes with some of the best students in the world and discover that they can hold their own is life-changing. It reaffirms that they can succeed. 

And best of all, because faculty at participating institutions can count these courses toward their teaching load, this experience comes at no additional cost.

3) The most effective tool we have to improve lives is vastly underutilized.

Unfortunately, the reach of postsecondary education in the correctional system remains small. For instance, at present in Massachusetts correctional facilities, there are an estimated 70 incarcerated students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs and another 140 who are taking non-degree college courses — out of a total state prison population of 6,600 inmates. 

These low participation rates are not due to lack of interest. According to Dr. Perlman, many people want to enroll in degree programs simply cannot, and programs often have a waitlist of qualified people standing by. 

4) For those lucky enough to matriculate, they must surmount several barriers to completion. 

Far more people matriculate than finish. For example, over the past 30 years at Boston University’s program, only one-third of men and fewer than one-third of women completed their degree. Low completion rates are a result of several factors:

  • In most correctional facilities, education is not a significant factor in an inmate's classification and placement. An educational evaluation of people upon entry into the criminal justice system could be utilized to place them in facilities where they can have their educational needs met. 
  • Transfers to a different facility most often terminate a person’s education. Prisoners are often transferred to a different correctional facility, and they have no control over where they end up. If they start a postsecondary program and are transferred, they can lose all educational access. Additionally, transcripts aren’t aggregated across correctional facilities, which makes it difficult for people to get an accurate picture of their educational achievements. 
  • Education is not a significant component of reentry plans. The implementation of vertical and horizontal integration of postsecondary education programs can provide the ability to help people navigate their educational and career pathways, as well better coordinate educational offerings across facilities. 
  • The selection of classes offered is ad hoc and don’t always lead to a degree. 

5) Synchronous remote classes have proven to be an effective, efficient, inexpensive, robust way to provide the incarcerated with a “real” classroom experience.

The synchronous mode of instruction makes possible several that cannot happen in prison: 

  • It facilitates the use of the inside-out model.
  • It allows for cross-facility education — and even cross-state education, which helps boost enrollments. 
  • Because more people can enroll in a synchronous class, institutional capacity is expanded and better programs can be offered. 

6) Recidivism isn’t the best outcome benchmark. Recidivism identifies failure. We need to establish a set of positive indicators that demonstrates what success looks like. 

If we can better understand what true success looks like, then we can develop stronger pathways for incarcerated people to receive the education that will help them achieve their career goals upon release.
COVID-19 and Higher Education
Allocation of Federal Funds in New England
Check out our COVID-19 resources to explore how New England's postsecondary institutions are responding to the ongoing health crisis.

Note: All New England states have announced that they will vaccinate out-of-state postsecondary students who are enrolled at a higher education institution in the region.
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As always, thanks for reading.