Let’s focus on quality and equity in higher education for incarcerated students
In a town marked by partisan gridlock, criminal justice reform conversations in Washington have surprisingly moved beyond those frequent stalemates. Yes, challenges and disagreements endure, but access to higher education for people in prison has gained new levels of attention and support. The boost in momentum has catapulted issues like restoring Pell grant access into policy conversations in a way that it arguably hasn’t been before.
The tireless efforts of advocates and other champions deserve the credit for this, but the devil is still in the details. Just as the efforts to arrive at this moment were intentional, so must be the policy design that follows. And for that same reason, quality and equity should be central.
But what does that even mean, to center quality and equity in this dialogue? In a town full of policy wonks and political jargon, it’s easy to throw these concepts out there and expect them to magically make sense. In this specific context, however, the consequences are particularly people-sensitive. Often, those in the criminal justice system are there because systems failed them, including education. And for the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., who are disproportionately Black and Latino, many decisions about their fates were unfortunately made for them and reinforced by policy. For that same reason, it’s even more critical that any policy seeking to restore the agency of these individuals be that much more intentional about its effects. Policies regarding higher education in prison are no different.
Over the past several years, Lumina has been supporting a quality agenda for higher education in prison couched in this context. Through careful investments and the support of practitioners, researchers, and institutional leaders, we’ve been pursuing the answer to the question of what quality should look like at all levels of program design and delivery, as well as its implications for racial equity, affordability, and reentry. Several of our partners have been leading these efforts, and a lot of their ideas permeate new policy proposals. As these efforts advance, we’re working to make sure that we are living up to this imperative in Lumina’s federal policy work as well.
In our federal policy priorities, we emphasize the importance of creating a federal policy environment that enables students from all walks of life — especially those most marginalized — to have a better shot at success. That means we must maximize federal policy levers to ensure quality, increase affordability, reduce volatility, encourage accountability, collect better data, align pathways, and advance racial equity. Along those same lines, and in response to the unique needs of incarcerated learners, we’ve developed a special set of principles to support this population. In it, we point out several considerations for federal policymakers, including issues of program costs, provider eligibility, and of course, quality to name a few.
This is just a start, but it’s an important one. In my last post on Second Chance Month, I wrote that in that moment, we had another chance to recognize our shared humanity and rebuild systems that have broken far too many. Federal higher education policy has the opportunity to do just the same. As political attention on this issue grows stronger, let’s be sure to keep this inspiring vision front and center.