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 postsecondary education in prison, there is widespread agreement that quality postsecondary prison 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 priority action areas for the field to fully realize opportunities postsecondary prison education 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 higher education in prison. Without a sound research infrastructure, we cannot take an evidence-based approach to improving access to and success in quality postsecondary prison programming. 

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 postsecondary education in prison. The centerpiece of this project will be a series of convenings that will 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 community of practice among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers focused on measuring postsecondary prison education and student success. It is our hope that such a collaboration will help those involved with higher education in prison 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. 

Our project will begin with original research to produce a grounding discussion paper that articulates the need for a postsecondary prison education research infrastructure and provides an overview of existing efforts, challenges, and resources in this area. Guided by this research, the first convening will be held in Fall 2020. Ithaka S+R will gather diverse stakeholders and decision makers in the postsecondary prison education space—including state corrections leadership, educational program directors, university administrative program and data staff, formerly incarcerated students, and philanthropic program officers—to investigate actionable steps toward a postsecondary prison education research infrastructure, build consensus around the top areas of focus toward that end, and define the specific goals and tasks that a smaller workgroup will address within these focus areas. The resulting workgroup will meet regularly over the course of a year, its members tasked with developing a deeper understanding and a proposed set of actions for how to facilitate the study of program quality and student outcomes. In late 2021, we will hold a second convening to review the workgroup’s findings, raise remaining questions around developing a postsecondary prison education research infrastructure, and generate next steps toward its development—including how to maintain and fund such efforts. Ithaka S+R will publish the convening series findings in 2022. 

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