Program Offers Incarcerated Individuals a Chance to Reenter the Community With a Degree
This fall, Kent State University at Trumbull began offering Trumbull Correctional Institution incarcerated individuals a chance to complete a Bachelor of Technical and Applied Studies (BTAS). With substantial funding support from local foundations, Kent State Trumbull and LaunchNET Kent State will join Sinclair Community College (Dayton, Ohio) to complete this new 2+2 program partnership.
Sinclair has been offering an Associate in Business Management there for two years, so its first graduates were ready to begin working on their bachelor’s this fall. Along with the degree, students can complete a certificate in entrepreneurship through the program.
“We chose the BTAS with entrepreneurship training because it is difficult for individuals with felonies to get hired by employers,” said Kristenne Robison, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, criminology and justice studies. “By developing their entrepreneurial mindset and skills, as well as putting credentials in their hands, graduates of the program can start a business, pursue funding for their entrepreneurial efforts or offer value to local employers.”
Many policymakers focus on the benefits of a college education in reducing recidivism as it increases the chances for successful reentry. A 2013 Rand study found that individuals participating in a correctional education program while incarcerated were 43% less likely to reoffend in comparison to their peers who did not participate in correctional education. There is also a high need and interest in pursuing postsecondary education while incarcerated, particularly bachelor's degree programs.
According to Daniel Palmer, Ph.D., interim dean and chief administrative officer of Kent State Trumbull, the benefits of a program like this are vast.
“As a public institution, a program like this helps Kent State fulfill its mission of ‘transform[ing] lives and communities through the power of discovery, learning and creative expression in an inclusive environment,’” he said.
The Kent State prison education program, which does not have an official name yet, has been in the works since January 2020. Robison, along with Benjamin Tipton, Kent State’s executive director of foundation relations, began the process of seeking the financial support necessary to make the program a reality. Trumbull Campus Director of Philanthropy Dave Smith supported their efforts by introducing the concept to potential funders from across the Mahoning Valley.
A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that over the course of three decades — from 1979 to 2013 — state and local spending on prisons and jails increased at three times the rate of funding for pre-K-12.
“So this becomes a community effort to prevent recidivism and reinvest in individuals who want to make a change,” Robison said. “Many of our local foundations realized the potential benefits for this program and made significant contributions to help launch it.”
Here is a list of funders:
- Burton D. Morgan Foundation
- The Raymond John Wean Foundation
- The Youngstown Foundation
- Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley
- The Thomases Family Endowment of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation
Congress reinstated access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students last December. The FAFSA Simplification Act is set to take effect no later than July 1, 2023. According to Robison, this should alleviate the need for additional funding and make the program self-supporting.
In the 1990s, Pell Grants were eliminated for incarcerated learners. The U.S. Department of Education, during the Obama administration, created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. Pell Grant access was made available to 10,000 incarcerated learners across the country. In December of 2020, with bipartisan support, Pell Grants were reinstated for incarcerated learners (or will be by July of 2023 at the latest). The reinstatement provides a significant funding stream for college in prison programs.
Incarcerated people earn pennies per hour for the work they do in prison. Pell Grants, the primary source of need-based financial aid, has made it possible for students to access higher education. The 1994 crime bill stripped incarcerated students of Pell Grant eligibility, making a college education practically unattainable.
“Our program begins near the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison riots, which occurred in September 1971,” Robison said. “The first college degree program in prison emerged out of the Attica Prison riots as it gave incarcerated individuals something positive to do with their time while incarcerated.”
Updated June 8, 2023
Prison Education will be supported and advanced as part of Kent State University's Lifelong Learning Initiative.