The Education Justice Project (EJP) recently released its National 2022 Interactive Reentry Guide, Mapping Your Future. With the restoration of Pell funding for students in prison set to take effect July 1, 2023, it will be more important than ever for colleges and universities to build their awareness of the reentry process and the resources these students will need to support their success. This 152 page document includes reentry resources that are essential for individuals being released from jail or prison, including information on how to acquire identification, access various forms of transportation, and secure employment and housing. These are all basic needs that are growing increasingly difficult for many, and even more so for individuals with felonies on their records, to obtain.

In addition to our ongoing work on higher education in prisons, Ithaka S+R is also leading research on how colleges can help meet students’ basic needs more generally. While not every person returning from prison will pursue higher education, we believe that colleges and universities are largely untapped reentry partners. Here we have distilled some key takeaways from this extensive guide that colleges and universities need to know:

Basic Needs

Many individuals returning from prison are entering communities they don’t recognize and will need to engage with complex systems and bureaucracies they aren’t familiar with to access critical resources. While there is no universally agreed upon definition of “basic needs,” the term can include employment, housing, food, access to technology, transportation, and healthcare.

Housing is often the first priority for people returning from prison, and for students who have been incarcerated, student housing might be one way that colleges and universities could provide an extremely beneficial piece of support. For example, Project Rebound, in the CSU system, has implemented a student housing model that other campuses might look to. Project Rebound’s John Irwin House was established in 2018 and is the first transformative housing community in the United States for university students who have been incarcerated. On campus housing can be especially impactful as it co-locates students with other resources—alleviating the need to commute to classes, while providing access to technology and broadband—that have a positive impact on degree attainment. Easy access to support spaces like the library could prove to be invaluable to this community, something Ithaka S+R is currently investigating.

The guide also covers resources for health and mental care, restoration of voting rights, and rebuilding relationships post release, important issues that should be on the radar of student health and wellness centers and offices of student services. Colleges should also be aware that reunification with family members is extremely important, and the Education Justice Project’s guide gives several examples of how this can be done while recognizing how difficult reunification can be. Campus counseling centers could also prove important resources for students as they navigate this process.

Beyond preparing students for successful careers, colleges and universities play a critical role in producing engaged and informed citizens. Part of reentry includes participation in local and national elections, and the guide provides links to informative resources on restoring voting rights. While many college campuses include voter registration information within student portals, they should also provide resources, or even trained staff, to help students restore their right to vote.

Continuing Education

As the guide makes clear, people will leave prison with a variety of educational backgrounds, experiences, and goals. Reentry as a whole is intimidating, and enrolling in a local community college or four-year university can be even more daunting. For many individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, college was never seen as an option or a possibility. For these students, navigating financial aid, scheduling classes, and working on campus are unfamiliar topics and campuses will need to provide specific guidance that accounts for their unique challenges and constraints.

Some campuses, such as the University of Northern Colorado’s “Bear Central” and University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, have experimented with creating specialized offices or one stop shops to assist these students with financial aid, student affairs, and advising. Other campuses, such as Washington State University, have chosen to keep these offices separate, but provide “navigators” to guide students through different campus offices and bureaucracies. Colleges should look to these examples to inform their own approach to supporting their students.

Some campus offices will be especially important for students seeking to continue their education. With the changes recently made to Pell grant eligibility, many more students will be able to participate in classes while in prison or jail and will be looking to finish what they started upon release. Credit transfer will be a critical issue for these students, and academic advisors will need to build their understanding of the complexities of earning college credit while in prison.

Technology and digital literacy are often critical challenges for people leaving prison. The guide notes that phones and computers are required for various aspects of life and being able to navigate these devices safely and efficiently is essential. Our previous work on technology emphasizes these challenges, and the steps campuses took during the pandemic to support access to technology may prove another useful model for supporting these students.

Mapping Your Future contains many vital elements that are necessary for a successful reentry. But since available resources will vary depending on region, in order to retain these students and support their educational journeys, colleges should create or adapt their own reentry guides for a growing population of students who will need targeted assistance.