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'They’ve paid their time': Ex-felons face barriers in seeking higher ed

The University of Utah Prison Education Project students and instructor at Timpanogos Women's Facility in the fall 2017. Photo courtesy of Erin Castro.

Directors of prison education initiatives across the nation are finding many of their formerly incarcerated students — despite having individual merit — are being barred entry to institutions of higher education. 

Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative and a professor of government and law at Georgetown University, said that he believes that colleges discriminate against ex-convicts due to a sense of liability.

“There’s a lot of fear-based thinking that’s not rational, that takes the worst nightmare scenario and puts it forward as though it’s likely to happen — making the decision to not admit someone,” he said. “Which means not giving someone a second chance, when in theory they’ve paid their time, they’ve paid their debt, they’ve been rehabilitated and they deserve a chance.”

Erin Castro, director of the Utah Prison Education Project, said that universities may be trying to reduce risk by not admitting ex-felons. 

"The problem with that is that there is no empirical evidence to support the relationship between asking prior criminal history and campus safety," she said.

The Common Application, used by over 700 colleges, requires applicants to state whether they have ever been found guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony. 

In 2016, 61 institutions of higher learning, such as New York University and Boston University, signed the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge. This initiative, launched by the Barack Obama administration, allows universities to commit to fairly admitting students with a criminal background. UNC-Chapel Hill is not among the universities listed as having signed the pledge.

Howard said that when universities decline qualified, formerly incarcerated applicants, they are doing a disservice to both the individuals and society. He further stated that accessible education is directly linked to a reduction of re-incarceration, thus creating a safer nation with less violence and fewer dollars allocated toward maintaining mass incarceration. He cited a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which found education for incarcerated students reduced their odds of returning to prison by 43 percent. 

“When (incarcerated students) take just one post-high school course, it’s like a light switch goes off in their mind, and it takes them down a different road,” he said. “Instead of going back into crime, they have more productive pursuits and further their education and integration in society.”

Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project and a professor at the University of Illinois, found education to be transformative in the lives of incarcerated people.

“They have a feeling that education has been deliberately kept from them,” she said. “When they get a taste of it, when they get the promise of being able to work towards a degree, it’s no little thing.”

Ginsburg stated that students in her program are incredibly driven and engaged in course material. Her students attended inner-city Chicago schools that were vastly underfunded, and the environment provided little opportunity for success. 

“For a lot of our students, they are coming into the realization that they’re actually not stupid, and in fact they are smart,” she said. “That’s a powerful thing to recently learn about yourself, and you want to prove it to yourself and to others and flex these new muscles you now see you have.”

Ginsburg said that in order to reduce barriers to higher education, universities must get rid of "the box," such as the criminal background question on the Common Application, while educating university admission officers that those with criminal backgrounds are not necessarily bad people. 

“There are no born criminals; there is no gene of that sort,” she said. “People often behave in very rational ways based on the environment which they find themselves, and if you change that environment, they’ll make different choices.”

“We don’t often think about people who spent time in prison as holders of knowledge and people who can make our campuses better,” Castro said. “We need to shift the way we’re thinking and stop letting our prejudices about what we think people can be, get in the way of what we do.”


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