As predicted in our 2022 Trends report, postsecondary educational programming in prison continues to grow (Hawver & Yore-VanOosterhout). With this growth comes a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape how we evaluate rehabilitative programming and, more importantly, its impacts on the people enrolled in the same.

According to the most recent data available, there are now more than 400 Higher Education in Prison (HEP) programs across the country, and every state offers at least one HEP program for people incarcerated in their system (National Directory of Higher Education in Prison Programs, 2023). Philanthropic involvement in HEP continues to grow apace as foundations give millions of dollars in support.'The principal reason for this sudden expansion of HEP programs and grants is the restoration of federal student loan programs for incarcerated students.* Through the FAFSA Simplification Act, incarcerated students enrolled in approved prison education programs will once again be eligible for Federal Pell Grants (Federal Student Aid Knowledge Center, 2023) — an opportunity denied them for nearly 30 years since the enactment of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (Tewksbury et al., 2000). As a result, HEP is fertile ground for postsecondary programs to expand their enrollment and diversify their student body.

To guard against the exploitation of students and to ensure they are receiving a high-quality education for these limited funds, the U.S. Department of Education requires periodic evaluations of prison education programs (Gaskill & Castro, 2023). Historically, these evaluations have measured “recidivism.” In recent years, however, many HEP programs and advocacy organizations have begun calling for a change in how we measure success for formerly incarcerated people. Funders intending to evaluate their HEP investments in the coming years will face the same critiques.

Recidivism and the Success of HEP

The FAFSA Simplification Act requires every HEP program be evaluated by corrections agencies that can provide oversight and assess whether programs are operating in students’ best interests (Gaskill & Castro, 2023). For programs that do not pass this “best interest” determination, students will no longer receive Pell Grants. While measuring recidivism and rates of completion are optional, oversight entities can adopt them. Without intentional action, a focus on recidivism may still dominate and skew the conversation.

Some higher education institutions have expressed that recidivism should not be used to evaluate their programs (Gaskill & Castro, 2023). Advocates call for other measurements to determine a program’s success, guided by a commitment to equity, excellence, and access (Erzen et al., 2019).

Intentionality in Program Evaluation

But how else could we evaluate programming that must be — by the very nature of the system in which it resides — rehabilitative? There are several alternatives.

  • First, watching for “markers of desistance” is only a small step away from traditional measurements of recidivism but asks a much different question.
  • Taking a step further from recidivism and criminal behavior, evaluators can instead monitor positive signs of success for people leaving prison, including engagement with “health care, housing, education, employment, and social and community integration” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2022, p. 150).

Read the full article about Higher Education in Prison by Emily Doebler and Aaron Yore-VanOosterhout at Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.