Updated on December 2, 2020, from a previous post published on March 3, 2020, to reflect adaptations made to the project in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent years, discourse surrounding postsecondary education in US prisons has grown substantially in both academic and political circles. Despite disagreement among stakeholders in this space over the specific goals of Higher Education in Prison (HEP), there is widespread agreement that quality HEP programming holds significant promise for incarcerated individuals and society as a whole. Recent figures, however, show that access to postsecondary coursework in prison is incredibly limited and that earning a degree inside is especially rare. Furthermore, barriers unique to the prison environment—such as a lack of classroom space and security protocols that limit materials and instructors—all stand in the way of fully realizing this potential and greatly restrict program quality.

We at Ithaka S+R have written about the need to expand access and support success for students pursuing their higher education in prison, suggesting two interrelated priority action areas for the field to fully realize opportunities HEP offers: creating a coordinated student outcomes-oriented research and data infrastructure and building collaborative networks that foster communities of practice. We believe there’s a critical need for better data collection and standards of quality for HEP. Yet without a sound research infrastructure, we cannot take an evidence-based approach to improving access to and success in quality postsecondary prison programming.

Inside and outside of US prisons, COVID-19 has impacted most aspects of daily life, and dramatically altered the delivery of postsecondary education. Implementing virtual or distance learning models in response to the pandemic has proved especially challenging in prisons, where incarcerated students overwhelmingly lack reliable access to the internet and hardware for accessing digital materials. The present disruption to instruction exposes the dearth of information on HEP programs, including their scope, pedagogical characteristics, and student outcomes, and reinforced the need to develop an HEP infrastructure.

With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Ithaka S+R is embarking on a new project to accelerate the development of an effective and ethical research infrastructure for the study of HEP. The goal of this project is to bring together a group of diverse stakeholders to investigate and workshop both existing and possible new structures, resources, and related services that can facilitate much-needed advancement in empirical research in this area. This group will also make actionable recommendations for facilitating a long-term, sustainable research infrastructure that will serve researchers, practitioners, and policymakers focused on measuring and promoting HEP programs and their students’ success. While the project was originally conceived as a series of in-person convenings and meetings, the necessary pivot to remote collaboration this year has offered us the opportunity to host the project and its different components on an interactive digital space, which will allow us to engage a broader audience over a longer period. It is our hope that such a collaboration will help all those involved with HEP better serve both the small percentage of the incarcerated population already enrolled in postsecondary education and the majority share who want access to higher education and have been denied the opportunity.

The digital space will be launched in early 2021 with the publication of a grounding discussion paper that articulates the need for a HEP research infrastructure and provides an overview of existing efforts, challenges, and resources in this area. The paper will draw on an original scoping review study of existing empirical studies in this space and be accompanied by supplemental materials—including a searchable, coded database of published HEP evaluations. We will invite feedback to the paper and accompanying materials from the public as well as targeted responses from experts in the field, including incarcerated students, to initiate an open dialogue across stakeholders regarding the development of such a research infrastructure. Much of this feedback will be hosted directly on the digital space, including recordings of public webinars we plan to host with panels of respondents to our preliminary work.

Engagement with the digital space and its content will guide the development of three workgroups, which will convene virtually around top emergent themes and goals for developing a HEP research infrastructure and will propose a set of actions and recommendations to that end. The project will culminate in a closing convening in late 2021, which will review and build consensus around what has come out of the three workgroups regarding key actions for developing a HEP research infrastructure, raise remaining questions around its successful implementation, and generate next steps toward its development. Ithaka S+R will publish all project updates and findings on the digital space.

We are excited to engage in this work, and invite all individuals and groups in this field to contact us with questions, suggestions, or comments.