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Getting a Second Chance with a University Education: Barriers & Opportunities

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As part of the prisoner reentry process, many formerly incarcerated individuals are choosing to enroll in universities to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Some cannot immediately begin their studies and must take remedial classes. Others, because of preparations they have done before release, can start classes on the first day of school. The following paper poses and attempts to answer six interrelated questions connected to excons taking classes at universities, the challenges they encounter, and ways to smooth the process for the universities in general and faculty, staff, administrators, and other students in particular.

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  1. An earlier version of this article was presented at University of Illinois at Chicago, Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

  2. I use the terms exconvicts and formerly incarcerated citizens interchangeably.

  3. Although there are technical differences among the terms convict, inmate, and prisoner, in this article I use them interchangeably.

  4. “A 2013 meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation and funded by the Department of Justice found that inmates who received an education while incarcerated were 43% less likely to be arrested for another crime than those who did not participate in any education programs. But research hasn’t been able to answer what kind of education has the best outcome. Some argue vocational programs that teach a trade such as welding or plumbing would help newly released people the most. Others argue that college programs prepare people for work in a rapidly changing economy” (Link 2016).

  5. For a handful of scholarly articles that review the Inside-Out program, see, for example, Allred (2009), Allred et al. (2013), Hilinski-Rosick and Blackmer (2014), Link (2016), Van Gundy et al. (2013)

  6. This phenomenon is not restricted to the field of corrections. In fact, I would argue that many initiatives, not just those promoted and/or administered by the state, are based on gut feelings and emotions, and not on policy science.

  7. For a recent review of programs that offer convicts and excons college instruction see, for example, Sokoloff and Schenck-Fontaine (2016).

  8. Thus, despite my attempts to be objective, this research can be criticized for possible problems of reliability and validity because it is by necessity subjective, interpretive, and depends on the multiple contexts to which I have been exposed.

  9. A “subsidy the federal government provides for students who need it to pay for college. Federal Pell Grants are limited to students with financial need, who have not earned their first bachelor’s degree or whose enrolled in certain post-bachelorette programs through participating institutions.’’

  10. Pell grants were available for prisoners until 1994, when the program was abandoned. When “the Pell program was disbanded “roughly 23,000 inmates were receiving a total of about $35 million in Pell funding. That comprised less than 1% of $6 billion awarded to students that year” (Lewis 2018). In 2015, the Obama administration reinstated Pell grants. As a response, some universities started offering classes at local correctional institutions…. According to a recent report in March 2018 by the Marshall Project, there are about “4000 inmates currently enrolled in a Pell-funded program… [who] access to college classes and vocational training.”

  11. For a review of the experiences of the hiring process of excons with Ph.D.s, see, for example, Ross et al. (2011).

  12. For a thoughtful analysis of Ban the Box as it relates to university admission, see, for example, Scott-Clayton (2017).

  13. In the United States, according to law, all male citizens and non-immigrant citizens between the ages of 18–25 must register for military conscription.

  14. USI is the acronym for the Underground Scholars Initiative at the University of California—Berkeley, that advocates for students who have been incarcerated, affected by mass imprisonment and/or detained by law enforcement.


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Special thanks to Professor Andrea Cantora for providing feedback on the University of Baltimore’s Second Chance College Program, to Professor Jessica Bird for assisting me with the outline of this paper, and to Ian Winchester, Rachel Hildebrant, and the anonymous reviewers of this article for comments.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Ian Ross.

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Ross, J.I. Getting a Second Chance with a University Education: Barriers & Opportunities. Interchange 50, 175–186 (2019).

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