From Incarceration to College Graduation: How Colleges Can Support the Education Goals of Formerly Incarcerated Students

From Incarceration to College Graduation: How Colleges Can Support the Education Goals of Formerly Incarcerated Students


California’s public colleges and universities cannot change the significant racial disparities embedded within the state’s criminal justice system, but by providing education opportunities to those affected by the system, they can reduce recidivism for this population and serve proportionally more students of color. California has made significant strides in improving access to higher education for incarcerated individuals. Now is the time for colleges to examine and expand their efforts to provide services for this population on campus, thereby helping to close access, learning, and completion gaps statewide.

In 2014, the State Legislature passed and the Governor signed Senate Bill 1391, which enabled the California Community Colleges to offer and be reimbursed for face-to-face college courses inside correctional facilities. In 2014, San Quentin was the only prison in California that offered face-to-face college courses to incarcerated people. By 2017, 34 of the 35 state prisons were doing so. While most people incarcerated in a state or federal prison are not eligible for federal Pell Grants, the California College Promise Grant covers community college tuition for every low-income student in the state, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Just as college programs have expanded in prisons, re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated students have grown across California’s public colleges and universities since the legislation went into effect. The programs seek to support students in overcoming barriers to persistence associated with past incarceration, such as feeling lost on a college campusfearing stigmatization; and struggling to find housing and employment. According to Don’t Stop Now (2018), a report by the nonprofit Corrections to College California, the numbers of public colleges and universities providing these programs have jumped from one California State University campus to nine, from one University of California campus to three, and from fewer than 10 community colleges to a third of the state’s 115 community colleges.

At EdInsights, I am part of an evaluation team that has surveyed over 500 community college faculty, staff, and administrators who attended professional development events sponsored by the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. This included participants from a statewide summit focused on serving formerly incarcerated college students. Survey respondents from this summit and other professional development events were particularly interested in implementation models and strategies. Community college personnel interested in creating programs for formerly incarcerated students at their college could benefit from engaging in a community of practice with colleagues to collaborate, share, and glean information about program design and implementation.

We’ve found that faculty, staff, and administrators working with these students want to learn from their peers about:

  • strategies to identify formerly incarcerated students;
  • developing partnerships with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation;
  • decision-making processes for program development;
  • design elements they consider crucial;
  • implementation challenges; and
  • budget considerations.

Through our work, we’ve learned about some efforts and resources that could help those looking for more information. Corrections to College California created a toolkit that describes the elements and key services that comprise a formal program for formerly incarcerated students. Examples include staffing the program with a full-time coordinator, having a dedicated and recognized meeting space, and offering students supports and resources to address both non-academic and academic needs. Some key services include connecting with currently incarcerated prospective students; highlighting student success; and assisting students in navigating college processes (e.g., applying for financial aid, registering for courses). The toolkit also provides college personnel with informal strategies for supporting these students when a formal program is not present, such as sponsoring a student group or hosting professional development.

We’ve also learned about the variation of how programs for formerly incarcerated students are designed. We do not have data on the efficacy of these programs, but these examples highlight how colleges have designed their program to cater to their colleges’ capacity and students’ needs.

  • Delta College’s The Phoenix Project assists formerly incarcerated students in employment and housing searches and provides communication opportunities with probation officers and social workers. The Phoenix Project also hosts workshops on college and career success.
  • Laney College’s Restoring our Communities program provides a dedicated space for formerly incarcerated students to meet with peer advisors to get support with applications (e.g., applying to transfer) and peer mentors to get advice on course selection. The program also provides students with vouchers for transportation and food.
  • Santa Rosa Junior College’s Second Chance program offers career, personal, and academic counseling from a dedicated program counselor and weekly club meetings for students within the program. Second Chance also provides students with access to professional support, referral to on-campus and off-campus services, and free school supplies.

California is leading the nation in improving access to higher education for formerly incarcerated students, but access alone is not sufficient. To facilitate learning, progression, and completion for these students, colleges need to share what they’re doing with each other in order to spread the work—through conferences, summits, and by building a community of practice among those who are interested in examining, evaluating, and reshaping their own practices to better serve formerly incarcerated students.

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