In 2019, the Michelson 20MM Foundation awarded the RAND Corporation a Spark Grant for the development of a guide to support prison officials in establishing high-quality college educational programs for currently incarcerated students. 

The guide, titled “What Corrections Officials Need to Know to Partner with Colleges to Implement College Programs in Prisons,” is co-authored by the late John Linton, former director of correctional education in the U.S. Department of Education, and Lois M. Davis, whose past research has significantly contributed to advancing higher education in prison. Correctional leadership and administrators, wardens, correctional education staff, correctional officers, and colleges that want to better understand the perspectives of those running prison facilities are amongst the target audience for the guide. 

The toolkit— now available online for free via RAND’s website—is intended as a starting point for corrections officials who are considering establishing a college program within their prison system or who may seek additional information to ensure the success of an existing program. It also serves as an essential resource for streamlining implementation and improving connectivity  between correctional administrators and educators, stressing the importance of creating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the college and the prison. 

A Timely Resource: Historic Pell Reinstatement

After a 25-year ban on Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students, the U.S. Congress passed the pandemic relief bill as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, reinstating access to Pell Grants. With implementation for Pell reinstatement slated for next year, the field is anticipating an uptick in higher education in prison programming. With this synergistic timing, the guide will serve as a powerful toolkit for corrections officials in developing and delivering high-quality, higher education in prison programming come 2022 and beyond.

However, it is also important to acknowledge the limitations of what is covered by Pell Grants, as well as what correction officials and higher education partners consider engaging in program development. According to another report authored by Davis in 2019, “The Second Chance Pell Experimental Initiative showed that some, but not all, of the costs of college programs for incarcerated individuals can be covered by Pell Grants. For example, Pell Grants can only be used to pay for tuition, fees, books, and supplies required by an individual’s education program.” 

In the guide for corrections officials, Davis writes, “However, Pell Grants cannot be used to cover the administrative costs of higher education institutions or those of correctional facilities associated with implementing the initiative.” Additional funding will need to be secured from corrections, philanthropy, higher education, state, and other sources to cover administrative costs associated with implementing in-college prison programming.  As the first takeaway below makes clear, the investment is worth it.

Four Takeaways for Correction Officials to Consider

  • Long-Term Benefits: Individuals who participate in a college program are half as likely to recidivate as those who do not participate in any correctional education programs. College educational programs not only improve the lives of those in prison and the conditions of prison, but also help individuals compete for jobs when they are released.
  • Funding Sources: It’s important to be well versed in your state’s funding of higher education in prison programming as Pell Grant funding does not cover all costs for program implementation.

  • Partnership with Colleges: Ensure higher education partners are accredited and establish statewide articulation or transfer agreement. Establishing an MOU with higher education partners is the biggest step in deciphering goals for the program, as well as roles and responsibilities.

  • Buy-in is a Must: Identify champions within the prison system to oversee these programs and be adamant about securing correctional leadership and staff buy-in.

Advancing quality postsecondary educational programming in prisons is central to Michelson 20MM’s Smart Justice approach. “The research of RAND and Lois Davis over the past 10 years has proven that higher education in prison creates a significant return on investment and taxpayer savings,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of the Michelson 20MM Foundation. “This guide will meaningfully support cross-sector collaboration amongst colleges and corrections officials looking to partner to establish new college educational programming in prisons.”

RAND Corporation’s Justice Policy Program conducts research across the criminal and civil justice system on issues such as public safety, effective policing, drug policy and enforcement, and corrections policy.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. All activities are made possible thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.