Commission Provides Blueprint for Expanding Higher Education in Prison


With Pell Grants Returning after 30 Years, Fundamental Changes Needed

June 7, 2023

The New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison recommends that re-entry planning should begin upon intake and that educational and career planning should serve as the foundation for all re-entry plans.

The commission recommends that the entire continuum of intake to re-entry should be re-envisioned to maximize educational and career opportunities and the creation of viable pathways to quality jobs upon release.

Currently, incarcerated prospective students may wait months or years to begin taking classes, losing time that, in an era of shorter sentences, could be used for education.

The diverse commission of more than 80 stakeholders from corrections, higher education, re-entry, workforce development, and government from the six New England states crafted recommendations for increasing availability of higher education programs in prison. People with lived experience comprised approximately 20% of the commission membership alongside five state corrections commissioners; this is the largest commission of its kind and the only one focused on an entire region.

Goal of Commission

The timely work of the commission coincides with the July 2023 restoration of Pell Grant higher education funding to eligible incarcerated people after a nearly 30-year ban and responds to the growing body of evidence of the personal and societal benefits of higher education in prison.

The commission was formed by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and The Educational Justice Institute at MIT (TEJI) with the goal of ensuring that every incarcerated person in New England has access to high-quality, workforce-aligned, equitable postsecondary opportunities with a wide range of educational pathways. Inequities to be addressed include unequal access to education based on sentence length, classification status and opportunities available at both men’s versus women’s facilities. Lack of data, including disaggregated data based on race, ethnicity, and gender, contributes to an incomplete picture of who is enrolling and succeeding in higher education programs.

“This groundbreaking commission created a network of leaders and stakeholders whose collaborative involvement is essential to expanding equitable access to high-quality workforce-aligned higher education for incarcerated people throughout New England,” said Michael K. Thomas, President and CEO, New England Board of Higher Education. “New England has an important leadership role to play in building the future of higher education in prison—and this report will be a catalyst for the actions, policy changes and investments that are needed.”


With the support of a grant from Ascendium Education Group, the commission made 15 recommendations that are prison-based and community-based, along with actions that states, institutions and other stakeholders can advocate for and implement.

Recommendations include:

  • Employ Education and Career Navigators to advise and assist students both during incarceration and after release.
  • Conduct assessments of carceral facilities to promote more effective use of physical space, infrastructure, staff time and resources for educational programming.
  • Expand and integrate technology usage and connectivity to foster a 21st century learning experience and prepare students to enter an increasingly digital/technology-dependent society and workplace.
  • Establish voluntary “credit transfer compacts” that guarantee higher education institutions’ acceptance of academic credits earned before and during incarceration to improve students’ ability to continue their education upon release.
  • Coordinate a voluntary cross-state, cross-facility collaborative to expand student choice and the range of educational offerings, making use of remote synchronous learning where appropriate and other technological tools to reach a greater number of students.

“Reimagining incarceration must include a more humanized approach to planning for re-entry, and the education offerings at each facility, both postsecondary and career and technical, must be more widely adopted and initiated sooner,” said Carole Cafferty, co-director of The Educational Justice Institute at MIT.

“We are seeking to change the conversation in higher education to become more inclusive of the prospective student population in prison. This is another group of students who need what higher education can offer and we must work across systems to deliver it” said Lee Perlman, co-director, The Educational Justice Institute at MIT.

Impact of education

There is substantial and growing evidence of the many benefits of higher education in prison: reducing recidivism, improving facility safety, enhancing the self-efficacy of incarcerated people, potential interruption of intergenerational cycles related to poverty and education attainment and the ability to boost students’ employability.
“The impact of these programs does not end when one is released from prison,” said Abraham Santiago, Student Advocate, Second Chance Educational Alliance. “Many formerly incarcerated students, myself included, have gone on to make positive contributions to society and their communities after completing. Since my release, I have been able to secure meaningful employment and use the knowledge and skills I gained from these programs to give back to my community.”

Commission Membership

The New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison brought together critical stakeholders including corrections commissioners, prison education administrators, state legislators, people with lived experience in prison education programs, postsecondary education institution leaders and faculty members, state higher education commissioners, business and workforce development leaders, subject-matter experts, scholars, and policy innovators.

“We are committed to reducing recidivism and we know that education builds confidence and breaks down barriers to future opportunities critical to create success upon release.,” said Helen E. Hanks, Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Corrections. “This commission’s work provides insight and practical recommendations across differing state correctional education environments on how to target urgent challenges and make changes that create long lasting benefits for individuals and communities.”

Next steps

The report concludes, “the spirit of collaboration on display throughout the last nine months [of the commission] is a hopeful foundation upon which to build a future in which all incarcerated learners in New England have equitable access to a range of postsecondary and career pathways.”

About The Educational Justice Institute

The Educational Justice Institute at MIT is a program within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to providing transformative learning experiences for system-involved students and MIT students.

About the New England Board of Higher Education

The New England Board of Higher Education advances equitable postsecondary outcomes through convening, research and programs for students, institution leaders and policymakers.

About Ascendium Education Group

Ascendium Education Group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates, and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans.