Equity and excellence – Quality matters in prison higher education
Incarcerated people need access to quality higher education just as much as traditional students, so higher education in prison should meet the same standards as programs outside the walls.
Those are among the conclusions of a new report that we at Lumina Foundation are proud to share. This is a vital topic – both for the prospects of incarcerated individuals and for the society to which most will return upon release.
The first major investment Lumina made in our strategy for incarcerated and re-entering learners was to support leading authorities in the field of higher education in prison as they sought to develop quality standards.
This report is the result. It represents the best thinking of dozens of prison education experts, and includes benchmarks for practitioners by practitioners, but is relevant for correctional leaders, higher education leaders, faculty, policymakers, and philanthropists.
Among its conclusions is the notion that because of the unique prison and re-entry environments, leaders must think about additional factors, from simple things like ensuring access to school supplies to complex issues around technology and helping faculty reckon with their own fears and biases toward incarcerated people.
The report further reinforces that incarcerated and re-entering individuals need access to not only high-quality learning experiences, but high-quality credentials. Simply providing access to single courses or enrichment opportunities is insufficient. Incarcerated learners need full academic programs that result in meaningful credentials and employment opportunities upon release. In-prison higher education programs that don’t fully transfer toward credentials upon release cannot be considered high-quality programs.
Prison education is also a concern for Lumina's Quality Credentials Task Force, which was created last fall and includes Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project and one of the lead authors of the report.
This work really began about two years ago when Lumina launched its 2017-20 Strategic Plan. We said all Americans need the opportunity to earn a high-quality postsecondary credential, and for the first time, we explicitly prioritized incarcerated and re-entering populations.
We immediately set out to learn as much as we could about the complex set of policies, practices, challenges and opportunities that define higher education in prison.
We asked the same question we ask in work with every population—how does this field define and understand quality? How is quality education assured, especially for vulnerable and marginalized populations? Do incarcerated and re-entering individuals consistently have access to high-quality postsecondary credentials?
Too often, the answer to these questions was a shrug. While experts could point to programs they felt represented quality higher education, they could rarely articulate why those programs were high-quality.
Often, we heard poor proxies for quality—the reputation of the institution running the program; the selectivity of the program itself; the leadership and charisma of the program leader. We almost never heard about post-release employment outcomes, the ability of learners to transfer what they learned inside prison toward credentials outside, or about the unique competencies teaching inside prisons require of faculty.
Without being able to understand the quality of higher education programs, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions about what to support or hold up as exemplars. And more concerning, as states and federal government are considering expanding public support for these programs, they are not able to assess quality either.
And because of the closed environments in prisons, normal market signals aren’t present—incarcerated learners have no choice in their educational opportunity beyond what is available. Correctional facility leaders, especially those with little experience in higher education, may not recognize low-quality programming when they see it.
These quality benchmarks are important—more important today than they would have been two years ago. As facilities, colleges and universities, states and the federal government consider expanding postsecondary opportunities in prison, quality must be the priority. Incarcerated learners deserve no less.