In October, Ithaka S+R announced that we are embarking on a new project funded by Ascendium Education Group that will allow us to expand our current work on increasing access to quality educational resources for higher education in prison (HEP) programs. For our quarterly newsletter, we recently asked Toya Wall, a senior program officer at Ascendium, about the challenges facing postsecondary education in prison and her organization’s focus on increasing access for incarcerated learners.  

1.    Could you tell us about Ascendium’s approach to addressing the barriers that incarcerated learners face in accessing high-quality postsecondary education? 

Ascendium is working to change postsecondary education and workforce systems so that low-income learners, and in this case incarcerated learners, have equitable opportunities for socioeconomic mobility. Our goal is to work at a structural level—addressing the institutional budget, policy, practice and cultural dynamics that undermine educational quality as well as incarcerated student access and success.

In 2019, after a long period of listening to and learning from the field, we rolled out a strategic framework to guide our philanthropic investments in postsecondary education in prison (PEP). From our conversations with leaders in the field we learned three key things:

1) Access is limited: While 64 percent of incarcerated people have at least a high school credential and are eligible for postsecondary education, less than 10 percent of degree granting colleges and universities are engaged in a college/prison partnership.

(2) Data is limited: There’s a lot we have yet to learn about the factors and conditions that influence incarcerated student education and career success. Additionally, there are a number of barriers to collecting, sharing and applying disaggregated student success data.

(3) Partnership is critical: Strategic, coordinated, multi-sector partnership is key to scaling access to high-quality postsecondary education across entire prison systems.

To address these issues, Ascendium is working to support innovative, effective, PEP delivery models. For us it’s not only an opportunity to expand access to college and career pathways, it also enables us to surface and share institutional policy and practice barriers that might have otherwise remained concealed. Typically, we are looking at projects that have systematic implication and that advance the field as a whole.

Ascendium is also supporting research and data capacity. We look for the types of research that can help us further understand the effectiveness of an approach or intervention on student success, as well as expose and challenge institutional barriers that stand in the way. Because we can’t do this without meaningful data, we support work that helps states, systems and institutions meaningfully collect and use data to enhance their work.

And finally, Ascendium is helping to forge multi-sector partnerships between corrections, postsecondary institutions, employers, and community-based organizations. Our goal is to ensure that a local infrastructure to support incarcerated learners along their educational and career journey exists and to create a vision for system-wide access to a coordinated set of high-quality postsecondary educational opportunities.

2.    How do you envision the data and research produced by Ithaka S+R supporting Ascendium’s strategy to move the needle on equitable access to postsecondary education for incarcerated learners? 

It’s well documented that low-income student success is hindered by unreliable access to curricula-relevant learning materials. Access to these materials is a particular challenge for incarcerated learners, who typically do not have ready access to a fully equipped library or the internet. Since the vast majority of incarcerated learners rely on instructors and program administrators to bring learning materials into the prison, this inaccessibility has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Ascendium is excited for the opportunity to partner with Ithaka S+R to examine the extent to which prison media review policies erect additional barriers, including the self censorship of educators, to the availability of key learning materials and begin to understand the impact of these policies on incarcerated student success. We believe the field can leverage the findings of this research as well as the forthcoming scan of existing educational technologies in prisons that Ithaka S+R is undertaking as part of this project—as a catalyst for strategic intervention and institutional policy change.

3.    Looking forward to 2021, what major challenges do you see facing postsecondary education in prison?

The implications of COVID-19 will continue to be a major challenge for the field. Right now, Ascendium is working to understand the full, collective damage of the pandemic on postsecondary education in prison programs as well as employment and education outcomes for currently and formerly incarcerated students. There’s real uncertainty about how these programs will re-emerge after the pandemic. Bearing the heaviest burden of course, are the students, whose credentialing prospects have been put indefinitely on hold and who have limited to no communication with their instructors, combined with proximity to high rates of infection and death.

From what we’ve able to gather so far, PEP program delivery models that emphasize reentry/alumni networks, incorporate solid transfer strategies and have technological capability are emerging as the most resilient and responsive in this time of crisis. Ascendium’s opportunity is to amplify and build upon these promising practices in the year ahead.

The pandemic has also accelerated an existing and complex discussion on access to technology in prison and more specifically, distance learning.  For the past several months, Ascendium has worked to fine-tune our own understanding of the practical barriers to and the limitations of distance education and technology in prison. For college/correction partners that are considering additional technology enhancements, either as a mode of educational delivery or as a learner resource, things like the cost of infrastructure vendor choice overload and a lack of benchmarking opportunities, make decision-making difficult. There’s also a very real fear of distance education in prison for a host of legitimate reasons.  Ascendium hopes to kick off the first quarter of 2021 by bringing key stakeholders together to discuss these and related issues.

The last thing I’ll note is the potential for broad reinstatement of Pell grants for incarcerated adults—both a challenge and an opportunity for the field. Pell restoration will undoubtedly lead to a quick expansion of PEP across most states. With this expansion, we’ll want to ensure that educational quality doesn’t suffer and that higher education systems are equipped with the knowledge and resources required to serve incarcerated students meaningfully.