The Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison is a key initiative of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and The Educational Justice Institute at MIT (TEJI) chaired by Drs. Lee Perlman and Michael K. Thomas.

The Commission’s work addresses three key truths. While research demonstrates that postsecondary prison education programs are the single best way to reduce recidivism and improve local economies, demand for prison education programs far exceeds existing programs’ capacity to serve the 202,000 justice-involved individuals in New England. Meanwhile, formerly incarcerated individuals are less likely than their peers to be employed due to hiring stigma and a lack of industry-recognized credentials upon release, even as many New England states face labor shortages. Additionally, it is clear and documented that the majority of justice involved individuals become incarcerated as a result of societal inequities including disparate education. These challenges require policymakers, departments of correction, higher education institutions, business leaders and formerly and currently incarcerated individuals to come together to maximize the region’s human capital potential, ensure workforce productivity, and improve justice-impacted residents’ and families’ well-being and generational success.

While the Commission’s origins are regional, it seeks to catalyze a national initiative and assume a broader leadership role in the United States.

Purpose

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison will develop an action agenda, policy recommendations, strategies and next steps to align institutions, policymakers, prisons, and industry to increase the life and career readiness of formerly incarcerated people—and facilitate their successful transitions to work and sustained contributions to the well-being and competitiveness of the region and nation. The Commission will deliver a final report with recommendations for higher education leaders, policymakers, departments of correction and employers in 2023 ahead of the re-release of Pell grants to all incarcerated students.

Focus

Accordingly, key areas for investigation and deliberation by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison include:

Credential Completion and Time to Degree

  • Scaling access and credential completion despite transfer and release (two of the greatest impediments to degree completion)
  • Integrating credential pathways across institutions and the use of technology/remote education delivery, a successful method during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Program and policy innovations to address timely completion of degrees, including post-release
  • Providing comprehensive access to both liberal arts, STEM and CTE training depending on the incarcerated student’s skills and interest.

Labor Market Success and Upward Socioeconomic Mobility

  • Engaging business leaders, including those that employ large numbers of previously incarcerated individuals, to address stigma surrounding the employability of justice-involved people and to identify strategies to increase hiring of individuals who start or complete a degree behind bars
  • Previously and currently incarcerated people will be members of the committee to increase understanding of employment needs and experiences of justice-involved individuals
  • Program and support service improvements to provide better career counseling and post-release “learn and earn” models to support students’ workplace and economic success.

Working Groups

As a member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison, you will have the opportunity to join one of four unique Working Groups, each with a specific focus in an area relevant to the prison education and employment systems. Working groups will convene remotely four times over the course of the Commission. We ask that you choose a Working Group that corresponds to your external area of expertise. These groups are:

Working Group 1: Access, Cost and Funding

While a variety of diverse prison education programs exist across New England, the demand for educational programming far exceeds providers’ capacity. This Working Group will explore opportunities for expanding prison education programming in the region to reach more students with new and existing program delivery models. For instance, this Working Group may explore the use of synchronous online education, a new and successful model of program delivery during the pandemic, as a means of reaching more incarcerated students across the region. Additionally, this group will seek to identify ways that postsecondary programming can be delivered more equitably. This Working Group will explore potential costs of scaling program provision, along with funding sources, such as the availability of federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students for the first time in 30 years.

Working Group 2: Program and Delivery Models

Misalignment among the correctional, higher education and employment sectors has made it challenging to deliver high quality, credential-bearing postsecondary education programs in prisons across the U.S. For instance, current transfer and release policies often prevent incarcerated students from completing postsecondary programs once enrolled. Including questions about educational background and goals in the prisoner intake and transfer processes may be an area of exploration for this group. This Working Group will explore models for delivering innovative prison education programming that embeds high-quality instruction and student supports throughout an incarcerated person’s time in carceral facilities to help scale student success and degree completion in New England.

Working Group 3: Partnerships and Policy Alignment

The Commission aims to secure long-term, structural changes to the prison education system in order to better serve New England’s justice-impacted populations. To do so, this Working Group will focus on strategies for strengthening partnerships among policymakers, departments of correction, higher education institutions and systems, community organizations serving justice-involved people, businesses and other key stakeholders to facilitate more successful transitions out of the carceral system, as well as reduce recidivism and increase employment in the region. Policy alignment will be instrumental in creating and solidifying these pathways, as well as maintaining the interconnectedness among the varied organizations, institutions and systems involved in prison education.

Working Group 4: Career, Workforce and Employer Connections

In the wake of Covid-19, employers around the region are experiencing labor shortages; even before the pandemic, many experienced a dearth of applicants bearing the skills and credentials needed for successful employment. Formerly incarcerated people represent a wealth of talent that is often untapped due to stigma and a misalignment of their skills upon release with the current needs of employers. This Working Group has a unique opportunity to explore methods for improving the career-readiness of incarcerated individuals by aligning credential offerings to current career and workforce opportunities. This group will work to deepen partnerships among departments of correction, higher education institutions and employers to improve incarcerated people’s ability to obtain life-stabilizing employment while addressing employers’ demand for a highly skilled workforce.