(Illustration by Adam McCauley) 

In 1999, I was convicted of committing a series of commercial burglaries. From the moment I stepped into prison, I knew that I needed to change my trajectory. Raised in a family where attending college was an expectation, I set my sights on earning a bachelor’s degree from behind bars. Having no funds of my own, I turned to the federal Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend accredited colleges and universities.

To my great disappointment, I learned that incarcerated people were no longer eligible for the program, due to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Over the next few years, I wrote hundreds of letters to churches, charities, local businesses, and other organizations asking for tuition assistance without success. I was eventually able to enroll in the distance learning degree program at Pennsylvania State University, only because my father stepped in to pay for it. With his generous support, I earned degrees in business administration and organizational leadership, graduating with highest distinction.

During my academic journey, I discovered that many of my fellow prisoners wanted to pursue a college education and were as motivated and hardworking as I was, but lacked the resources to realize their ambitions. Inspired by their passion and moved by their struggles, I founded the Prison Scholar Fund (PSF) in 2006; its mission is to help incarcerated students by supporting college, vocational, and technical education, as well as mentoring services. Over the next eight years, I learned from thousands of letters, applications, and essays by incarcerated women and men from around the country how massive the problem of prisoners’ access to education is. A population so determined and full of potential should not be ignored.

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. It holds 2.3 million people, or 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but has only 5 percent of the world’s population. High recidivism rates only exacerbate the problem. “About two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6 percent) were arrested within 5 years,” a Bureau of Justice Statistics study reports. The prison system generates a revolving door of career offenders who have few opportunities to improve their lives.

Educational opportunities can disrupt this feedback loop. Recidivism rates drop significantly when education is offered to prisoners. According to a 2014 RAND Corporation study, recidivism decreases by 43 percent when prisoners participate in any type of correctional education program (including adult basic education, GED and high school courses, career and technical training, and college courses), and the odds of landing a job after release increase by 13 percent, compared with those who do not participate in any of these programs. Prisoners who take college classes are 51 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not.

Degrees Instead of Demerits

Yet college prison programs are not widely available. After the Pell Grant was eliminated for incarcerated students in 1994, the number of postsecondary programs for prisoners plunged from more than 350 nationwide to only eight. A rise in recidivism followed. In Washington state, the recidivism rate hovered around 30 percent but steadily increased to approximately 42 percent after the law changed; other states showed similar trend lines.

Most prisons today support adult basic education and GED attainment, since these programs are federally mandated. Some prisons provide vocational education, which purportedly includes postsecondary work. But these programs leave much to be desired: Course credits do not always transfer to other universities, and the quality of institutional instruction is often subpar.

In July 2015, the federal government launched the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program to provide incarcerated students up to $5,815 per year to pursue two- or four-year degrees from one of 67 approved colleges and universities. In sum, the effort will provide around $30 million to inmates in 27 states. This is a welcome development, but its impact is limited. All of the pilot programs are on-site; distance education is not covered. And while the grants are significant, they do not cover the full cost of tuition and books for students who have no other source of financial support.

The PSF seeks to increase the few high-quality educational opportunities that are available to incarcerated individuals. We support distance education programs and the development of on-site programs for incarcerated students, and we also offer mentoring and advising that is rarely available in prison education departments. Since 2006, the PSF has funded 110 Prison Scholars across 22 different states. Many of our scholars have obtained academic certificates, seven of our students have earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and two are ready, pending funding, to begin MBA programs through distance education. Of the 74 Prison Scholars who have been released, only three have been re-arrested, giving the PSF a remarkably low recidivism rate of 4 percent.

Today, 36 of the original group of Prison Scholars who have not been released from prison are interested in pursuing their education, so it is important to provide them continuity as we launch other programs that will not reach them for a few years. The PSF has built relationships with correctional institutions to launch online degree programs, beginning in Washington state. Our first online degree program is the Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Social Sciences through the University of Washington. Although this is an online program and inmates are not allowed free Internet access, prison education departments can help facilitate.

We are also partnering with Code Fellows, a coding academy in Seattle, to create a program that teaches students full-stack software development. Programming experts lead classes at the prison where students learn front-end Web and mobile development. The average length of time between graduation and employment for a Code Fellows (nonincarcerated) graduate is 11.5 weeks, with an overall placement rate of 95 percent. We are excited to see similar opportunities open up for those reentering society.

Changing Lives, Adding Value

While we are proud of our success, the massive demand for prisoner education drives us to find a scalable solution to meet need. “I have to write people all day long letting them know funding is not available,” James Bullington, head of Adams State University’s Prison College Program, said in an e-mail to the PSF. “If I were to guess, if funding wasn’t an issue we would have over 15,000 incarcerated students almost immediately.”

Yet scalability requires further investigation. Many studies and meta-analyses suggest that prisoner education changes lives and adds value, but researchers are still unsure about the key factors. The 2014 RAND study is, according to its authors, “still unable to get at what is inside the ‘black box’ of what works in correctional education.” How much and what kinds of education are required to secure positive results? What models of instruction and curriculum delivery are most effective in a correctional environment? Can we produce the same positive outcomes using a robust distance-education model?

There are a growing number of research designs and statistical techniques to identify the causal impacts of policy interventions like the PSF’s prisoner education program. We have an active partnership with researchers in the Washington State Department of Corrections to share inmates’ data while preserving their privacy. We have also partnered with two Microsoft employees, a big data scientist and a senior researcher, on a volunteer basis to help develop and analyze our programs, using randomized controlled trials.

We are hard at work securing our future funding. In addition to the foundation, individual, and corporate contributions we receive, we are exploring several different innovative financial strategies to support what we do, starting with cost recovery from our clients. Student loans are not a viable option for prisoners; they are not permitted to incur debt, nor would we want to burden those reentering society with debt service. Consequently, we are considering ways for our prison scholars voluntarily to give back what the PSF spent on them when they are on their feet again and in a financial position to do so.

We also decided, following the suggestion of Julie Battilana and others (“In Search of the Hybrid Ideal,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2012), to create two separate legal entities, a nonprofit and a for-profit, where “the nonprofit owns equity in the for-profit, a structure that gives the nonprofit power to control the activities of the joint venture while protecting its social mission.” The PSF would remain true to its mission, delivering programs and gathering data, and thus retain its 501(c)(3) status. But it would also own part of a separate entity, which may be established as a new type of legal structure: an L3C (Low-Profit Limited Liability Company), which is a variant of the LLC, a Benefit Corporation, or a Flexible Purpose Corporation. This for-profit entity would market the intellectual property developed through our research partnership with Microsoft employees to governments seeking best practices to implement programs that reduce recidivism. The independent, for-profit entity would thus be free to receive impact investments, which allow investors to receive a fair return while addressing social challenges.

It is clear that correctional education has the ability to open doors to new possibilities. I do not believe that our society ever intended to lock a person away for years without effective rehabilitative programming and still expect him to return to society in better emotional shape or with a more marketable skill set. But that is essentially what we did to a generation of incarcerated people when we precluded inmates from Pell Grant funding and cut postsecondary programs in prison. I was lucky; my father was in a position to support my educational journey, and it changed my life. But luck should play no role in today’s rehabilitation programs.

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