Last week, the US Department of Education announced an expansion of its 2015 experimental initiative that provides federal Pell Funding to eligible incarcerated students. The announcement builds off other 2019 bipartisan policy initiatives — at both the federal and state levels — that aim to increase postsecondary access for the 1.5 million of adults currently held in American prisons. Given that reentry statistics suggest more than 95 percent of incarcerated adults will eventually be released, and the estimate that by next year 65 percent of all jobs in US economy will require postsecondary education, proactive programming is crucially needed. Higher education promises to give incarcerated students the skills they need to reintegrate into their communities, find employment, and reduce recidivism. These outcomes significantly decrease the large price Americans pay for mass incarceration: the devastating personal costs faced by incarcerated individuals and their families and the immense costs borne by all taxpayers (a sum which averages at $30,000 per incarcerated person annually). Yet despite these telling figures, access to postsecondary education in prison has remained flat over the last half-century in the midst of the exponential growth in the US prison population, as visualized below.

US Prison Population and Postsecondary Education in Prison Enrollment: 1960 -2016

While postsecondary enrollment figures must increase to deliver on these promises, recent research by Ithaka S+R uncovers the wealth of challenges and precautions we must consider as postsecondary education in prison enters this watershed moment. The report, titled “Unbarring Access: A Landscape Review of Postsecondary Education in Prison and Its Pedagogical Supports,” reviews the extant literature in the field to provide an overview of postsecondary education in prison: the practice’s history, the roles played by current stakeholders, and the concerns raised by public policymakers’ and private companies’ recent interventions. As more higher education institutions begin to enter this space, the balance between quality and scalability is especially at the forefront, given the unique pedagogical challenges posed by teaching credit-bearing postsecondary coursework in prison.

Unique challenges aside, many of the issues important to improving postsecondary educational attainment across American higher education are also relevant to improving outcomes for incarcerated students. What should be the balance between a liberal education and coursework more directly focused on jobs? How can we relax the difficulties of transferring credits earned in one program to another in order to improve graduation rates and time to graduation? What role should technology play in scaling higher education at lower cost? What role should the for-profit sector play? All of these issues are important to both improving outcomes for students generally and for students in prison working toward a postsecondary degree. With these challenges and issues in mind, the report concludes with a set of recommendations for research and practice for the field.“Unbarring Access” is the first of two research initiatives by Ithaka S+R aimed at understanding the field of postsecondary education in prison. Building from the findings of this landscape review, the next stage of our work includes performing original research with educators, former students, and other stakeholders. The report resultant from this endeavor will articulate the pedagogical supports necessary to maximize incarcerated students’ learning outcomes and identify the challenges and opportunities for scaling prison programming. In particular, the research will focus on access to quality information and technology resources, an essential but currently understudied facet to higher education in prison.