Large-group discussions—like this one among a mixed group of incarcerated and non-imprisoned students at the minimum-security Cambria Community Center—create unique learning opportunities for both populations.
Large-group discussions—like this one among a mixed group of incarcerated and non-imprisoned students at the minimum-security Cambria Community Center in Philadelphia—create unique learning opportunities for both populations. Photo from Lumina’s Focus magazine, Fall 2016.

Since 1994, when the Violent Crimes Act banned incarcerated people from receiving federal financial aid, millions of Americans have cycled through prisons, only a fraction able to obtain high-quality higher education. With public resources largely off the table, policymakers argued about who deserved an education, leading to years of stalemate and stalled discussions.

But times are changing. In an era of rare bipartisan support for anything, restoring federal financial aid for incarcerated learners might just be a winner.

Left-leaning organizations and leaders have long supported increasing higher education opportunities in prisons and removing the ban on federal funding for incarcerated learners. Most advocate for social justice, enabling incarcerated people to gain the skills and knowledge they need to not only get a job upon release, but to lead fulfilling, contributing lives.

Conservative groups are also calling for more higher education in prisons. In fact, religiously- affiliated colleges and universities run some of the longest-standing and most highly-regarded prison education programs, which align well with their service missions. Further, prison-based higher education programs have proven to reduce recidivism while significantly reducing cost—as much as $5 for every $1 invested.

The benefits of allowing federal financial aid for incarcerated learners are clear—we need the resources to grow these programs. But policymakers must prioritize quality.

While the value of higher education in prison done well is proven, history is rife with examples of poor-quality programs. Too often, what’s offered are correspondence courses, non-transferable courses, or training programs that don’t lead to credentials or jobs.

Formerly incarcerated people face lifelong consequences resulting from their time in prison. Any arrest diminishes job prospects, and 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed a year after their release. A conviction has been shown to lower wages by 40 percent.

And because of policies that have led to people of color being incarcerated at higher rates than white residents in every state in the country, these consequences are borne largely by African American, Latinx and Native American communities—and the impacts are generational.

This is one reason quality must come first. It’s not enough simply to provide access to college courses in prison, using taxpayer dollars or otherwise. That’s insufficient for incarcerated learners to overcome the challenges they face, many of which our system of justice creates for them. Even more so in this context, higher education must be of the highest quality and value. That means courses and programs must be rigorous and build critical thinking skills. Learning outcomes must be meaningful, and content must be delivered by exceptional instructors. Most important, programs must result in credentials of value—those that lead to employment and to further education.

As policymakers and advocates discuss restoring incarcerated learners’ access to federal financial aid, they should think first about how these funds can be used to create and reinforce high-quality prison education programs. With federal funding as an incentive, colleges and universities should be required to put learners first by putting quality first.

In this way, we do right by everyone: we create a true public good while using public resources effectively, and we preserve the financial and social benefits of higher education in prison. Most importantly, we create real opportunity for incarcerated learners to engage in postsecondary learning that will result in employment, further education and a stable, thriving life when they are released.

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