Higher education in prison programming has entered a period of great opportunity and promise. In December 2020, the nation lifted a 26-year ban on need-based Pell Grants to incarcerated undergraduates. Over the next several years, the restoration of this federal funding stream will propel the expansion of college programming to many of the estimated half million Pell-eligible incarcerated adult learners. However, nuts-and-bolts questions persist, such as how best to scale high-quality educational programming and incorporate educational technologies in the prison classroom.

To meet this pivotal moment and to ensure program quality and equity, Ithaka S+R, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has launched Higher Education in Prison Research. This new online forum invites diverse players in the field to unite in pursuit of a common goal: developing a research infrastructure to advance empirical research and, subsequently, evidence-based pedagogy and policy.

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For most, the term “infrastructure” brings to mind the physical networks of roads, bridges, buildings, and utilities that more-or-less seamlessly undergird daily life. A research infrastructure, by extension, is a largely invisible, yet intimately interconnected, ecosystem of relationships, agreements, and incentives. Together, these components sustain research activity in a given area of study. In our interactive online Working Discussion Paper, we identify key examples of relationships, agreements, and incentives specific to the higher education in prison context and suggest opportunities to bolster this still-maturing ecosystem. 

To motivate original research, we not only illuminate the state of the field’s research infrastructure, but also take stock of more than 55 years of existing inquiry. Higher Education in Prison Research functions, in part, as a major public research repository. Our survey of modern research in the field yielded 100 relevant empirical studies analyzing the relationship between academic prison education programming and incarcerated learners’ outcomes. [For more information on our inclusion criteria and for links to each study, visit our online Database.] 

Existing studies’ overwhelmingly positive findings testify to the wide-ranging benefits of college-in-prison programming. Some studies support common claims about higher education’s potential to reduce recidivism rates and improve post-release employment prospects. Other studies suggest positive impacts on participants’ psychosocial development and well-being. Taken together, our Database reinforces the benefits of higher education in prison to students, their loved ones, and society at large. This research underscores all that the nation stands to gain by extending educational opportunities for incarcerated learners.

However, substantial work remains before the field realizes a robust, sustainable, and ethical research infrastructure. We therefore invite diverse stakeholders to organize around this window of opportunity and solidify as a community of practice. Higher Education in Prison Research offers an innovative, accessible forum for the many individuals who share an interest in this work to meet and share the perspectives and expertise gleaned from their personal and professional experiences. Here, all site visitors—ranging from students enrolled in their first coursework, to prominent researchers, to Department of Corrections professionals—have equal input and opportunity to engage with the site’s open prompts. Participant responses will shape the upcoming phases of research infrastructure development. By inviting critical reflection and democratizing the feedback process, we hope that unexpected viewpoints, fresh insights, and lasting collaborations will emerge.

Please join us in shaping the exciting future of higher education in prison programming. Visit Higher Education in Prison Research to participate in facilitating new research—and thus the social promise of these educational programs—and sign up for our mailing list to keep informed on project updates and additional opportunities for collaboration.