From prison to college: Major foundations fund five-year study bridging divide

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 11:15 p.m. MDT

Michigan's Heather Gay notes her state has seen a demographic shift in recent years, with ever larger percentages of prisoners already having high school diplomas or GED's.

"So we knew we needed to expand into postsecondary education, but we didn't know how."

Needless to say, Michigan was thrilled to be selected for the experiment.

"Part of what we wrote into our grant is a huge employment piece," she said. "We are very focused on soft skills and on job searching, and we are going to bring a lot of employers into prisons and educate them."

Each of the states in the Pathways Project brings a slightly different background to the experiment. North Carolina, for example, is conducting two experiments in one. In 2011, the Tar Heel state enacted a sweeping series of reforms known as "justice reinvestment." Among those reforms was a return to mandatory post-release supervision, or parole, which had been done away with 20 years earlier.

North Carolina is rebuilding its parole system at the very moment it launches this experiment with post-release education. The new parole officers will be expected to take a more collaborative, supportive posture, rather than thinking of themselves primarily as rule enforcers.

New Jersey already has an advanced higher education program involving many of the state's leading educational institutions, including Rutgers and Princeton universities. North Carolina has extensive post-secondary education arrangements with community colleges throughout the state.

Michigan is starting from scratch. Since the abolition of Pell grants for prisoners in 1993, Michigan has had no systematic post-secondary education program. Gay is keeping her sights low to the ground, trying not to look beyond five years out.

"It's a five-year grant so I want to focus on the demonstration, and put all the hard work into that, and let the demonstration speak for itself, let the data speak for itself," she said. "Maybe in five years we can have the conversation again and see where we're at."

email: eschulzke@desnews.com.

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