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Oklahoma prison inmates in Tulsa Community College class

The college degree is on probation.

Debate over student debt and its forgiveness — whether it will come through or not — has borrowers asking whether their degrees were good deals.

Pundits in different places have prompted these doubts. The New York Times “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber appeared on the Detroit Today show on Detroit’s National Public Radio station on August 17 and admitted that certain degrees might not be worth it. On the June 4, 2021 episode of his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher’s editorial “New Rule: The College Scam” told audiences “the answer isn’t to make college free, the answer is to make it more unnecessary, which it is for most jobs." Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative organization Turning Point USA, wrote a whole book on it, arguing that higher ed is a government-backed flim flam.

Even Congress is on the game. While it hardly accuses post-secondary schools of being a racket, the College Transparency Act would require colleges and universities to collect data on student enrollment, transfer, and completion so that applicants and their families know exactly what they’re paying for. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives amended the bill to another one that passed. The Senate version has bipartisan sponsorship.

Much of this data already exists and underwent a tough crunch by a former executive director of College Scorecard, the Department of Education’s online tool that allows prospective students to evaluate the cost and value of education at colleges and universities in the United States.

A fellow at the think tank The Third Way, Michael Itzkowitz culled an entire database from the Scorecard to demonstrate the return on investment of bachelor’s degrees using data from the College Scoreboard. Itzkowitz thinks the best way to measure college education’s value is to look at its Economic Mobility Index, or how it helps low income students to climb out of poverty. He says many schools have low Economic Mobility Indexes that compromise their value.

It may be a coincidence that we’re debating the utility of a college degree right before access to higher education is poised to expand exponentially for people who’ve been specifically excluded from it for more than a quarter of a century. It’s almost as if prisoners’ access to education diluted its value.

On December 21, 2020, Congress lifted the 26 year old ban on federal student aid for prisoners as part of an omnibus spending bill.
In less than one year, all incarcerated individuals across the country will be able to apply for Pell Grants. Experts anticipate a 27-fold increase in the number of eligible students; the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative, a pilot program instituted by President Barack Obama in 2015 has serviced about 28,119 inmates since 2016.

Congress created the Basic Educational Opportunity or Pell Grant Program in 1972 (they were renamed in 1980 after their champion, the late Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell) to pay tuition for students who couldn’t afford it; these grants don’t necessarily need to be repaid. From the start, the program included inmates. Within 10 years of creation, 350 post-secondary education prison programs had developed. Another 10 years later, 800 programs were at work in over 1,300 facilities.

But in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act blocked inmates from receiving this type of aid and the number of educational programs plummeted to eight in three years. That drastic reduction in offerings was bad news for everyone; the RAND Corporation conducted the seminal study on the effect of post-secondary schooling and found that higher education lowered recidivism rates by 43 percent. Without those programs, recidivism rates didn’t decrease as prison populations ballooned 500 percent.

Before the value of higher education behind bars undergoes similar scrutiny, we should know why prison education reduces recidivism so effectively. And it has little to do with post-prison employment prospects and the American obsession with credentialism.

Higher education improves the chances of employment but not as much as it should. Some college-educated prisoners still struggle to secure employment. Often the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction effectively offset any advantage that college education provides.

Education works to keep people on the straight and narrow because it changes prisoners' identities, not in the sense of identity politics, but in the sense of understanding themselves as someone other than society’s definition of them. Enrollment in a college course turns shoplifters and solicitors into scholars and students. It’s a new descriptor that doesn’t invite shame.

The late sociologist Jack Mezirow developed a theory of transformative learning and said adult education amounts to “becoming aware that one is caught in one’s own history and is reliving it.” There’s probably no more apt way to describe rehabilitation.

A dearth of research and evidence on the transformative power of higher education in prison persists in the United States, but scholars in the United Kingdom have caught onto the reasons why prison education is effective and found that it’s the shift in self-perception that reduces reoffending.

Twenty-five years ago, Anne Marie Reuss, a prison educator, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Leeds. Reuss divided inmates’ lives into periods of pre-institutional identity and institutional identity. The institutional identity will develop, Reuss wrote, sometimes as a survival mechanism. Higher education in prison can intervene in that process and assure that institutional identities aren’t more anti-social than the identities inmates rode in on.

Other researchers found similar changes. Even a distance learning course, one with no formal classroom education, helped inmates in England and Wales become “part of a wider community of learners which helped them to replace their prisoner identity.”

Just because researchers in the United States don’t concentrate on the shift in self-perception among incarcerated students doesn’t mean it’s not understood. Daniel Karpowitz, an assistant commissioner in the state of Minnesota’s Department of Correction and former director of national programs for the Bard Prison Initiative, wrote in College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration:

Every student is also an “inmate”, “offender” or “prisoner” in their own eyes or in the eyes of those surrounding them. In no small part, the struggles around these contested and competing identities define the milieu of the college in prison.”

Most of the research on education and identity is ethnographic because it’s hard to assess these shifts quantitatively. That’s probably why advocates for the restoration of Pell Grant eligibility concentrated so much on recidivism; it demonstrates improvement in measurable ways and with benefits that accrue to society, not only to the students themselves.

A college degree does pay financial dividends. Someone who has graduated college will earn about $1 million more in a lifetime than someone who did not.

But focusing narrowly on education's return on investment, particularly for prisoners, eclipses its ability to reframe their lives for them and society. Even with over 700,000 inmates eligible for Pell Grants next year, prison education might not be able to prove itself; its value can’t be fully gauged -- at least not in ways we are ready to understand.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

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