Allison Waltz/Ashland University

Kristen Haley Theriot made her first and only visit to the campus of Ashland University in December 2018. She left with a purple blanket, a portfolio with the school’s logo and an associate’s degree.

The 33-year-old’s classes were completed far from the small campus, though. Theriot took them from a Louisiana prison, where she was serving time for armed robbery.

“I was able to accomplish one of the things I thought I’d never be able to accomplish ever in my entire life,” she said.

The majority of the 6,350 undergraduates enrolled in Ashland’s courses this past fall are in prisons across 10 states and in Washington, D.C. No other college is in as many different prisons in as many other states. Its closest national competitor enrolled fewer than half of the students Ashland did last year.

A Giant in the Landscape

The private Christian university nestled in the middle of Ohio is now a giant in America’s prison education landscape. Its rise has come with a hefty dose of criticism.

Ashland officials said the program brought in more than $30.4 million over four years in Pell Grant funding as part of a federal pilot program that began in 2016. Those awards are earmarked for students with extreme financial need. The program is free for the vast majority of students who use their Pell allotment to enroll.

Enrollment in Ashland’s program more than doubled between the 2017 and 2018 academic years. This comes as its traditional full-time undergraduate population, the steadiest source of revenue for institutions like Ashland, is shrinking. Its $47.6 million endowment sits far lower than similarly sized colleges in Northeast Ohio, and the university is just a few years out from earning a junk bond rating from Moody’s.

Administrators said they’re invested and would continue the work even if those grants went away. But with the impending expansion of that federal program that’s behind the growth, the university finds itself in the middle of a national controversy with other providers over the quality of the education it’s delivering.

The school said it’s invited into states by departments of corrections, a number that’s estimated to currently clock in at about 70 reported remote institutions. It’s free for institutions, too.

Education on a Tablet

Participating students are issued a tablet with a silicone keyboard. They use an online learning platform to watch videos, read course materials and take tests. Officials said there’s about 20 to 25 students to one professor. A messaging service allows both sides to communicate. Some institutions have Wi-Fi capabilities. Others allow work to be submitted by connecting the device to a kiosk.

The majority of graduates — 765 over the past four years, officials said — earn an associate’s degree in general studies or the same degree with a business concentration. A smaller number earn bachelor’s degrees in communications, interdisciplinary studies or multidisciplinary studies.

That’s different from how other higher ed prison programs work. Resources vary from place to place. The majority are set up around either a correspondence model, like the one Ohio University uses, or by offering in-person classes, which Sinclair Community College in Dayton did pre-pandemic.

Asked about the program he oversees at Ashland, Todd Marshall recites the school’s mission, emphasizing the word “transformative.” The work on this front closely aligns, he said.

“It’s a transformation, and offenders need transformation,” said Marshall, Ashland’s vice president for correctional education and innovation. “They want transformation. They asked for it. That’s why they engage.”

Explosive Growth

Ashland has been involved with prison education since 1964. The landscape changed for all institutions three decades later, when a federal crime bill stripped the use of the federal funding for those in prison. Ashland continued its face-to-face work during this time.

Its recent growth came via a federal pilot program established in 2016 under the Obama administration. This initiative, known as Second Chance Pell, offered a select amount of schools the option to again receive those Pell Grants for their prison programs.

As a recent article in The Marshall Project detailed, the offering exploded during the Trump administration. Ashland officials estimated they’d begin classes in about 20 new institutions this spring.

They’re set to expand into the home state of New York’s Ann Jacobs. She’s the executive director of the City University of New York’s John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity. Programs as widespread as Ashland’s don’t know the structure or needs of the local communities they’re setting up in, she said, making it hard to support those in prison when they transition out.

Ashland’s tablet program is in about one-third of Ohio’s 28 correctional institutions; there are no current plans to expand into more. An Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction official said the school offered “in-person routine check-ins” pre-pandemic.

The criticism it receives, Ashland officials said, comes from “a prejudice against distance education.”

“We’re going there to light a candle in the darkness,” said Ashland’s Marshall. “Other people say, ‘Well, our candle is better than yours, or we don’t like your candle. So we’re gonna try and blow out your candle.’ That’s not helping the students.”

Questions about Quality

But some say it’s a substandard education, arguing that critical thinking and communication skills aren’t best delivered in a tablet-based environment. Marshall said the courses are the same quality as their in-person offerings. According to Ashland, each state’s department of corrections looks through the curriculum, though there’s no accrediting body dedicated specifically to this work.

Jim Verhoye used to work for Minnesota’s Department of Corrections as an education director. Before he left to work at a nonprofit, he helped Ashland set up in two Minnesota prisons. Everyone he dealt with from the university was great, he said. But he ultimately called the experience “a mixed bag,” adding that a tablet-focused delivery is far different than what others encounter.

“Some people will say, ‘Well, you’re incarcerated, how good should it be?’ “ he said. “I would argue, if we’re gonna have it, we might as well do it right, do it well and have high quality, because it’s the right thing to do.”

The program was good for Ronnie Hopkins. Education was key when he was incarcerated, a lesson he first learned by trading potato chips for GED tutoring sessions with a fellow inmate. On the same day he earned that credential, a friend took him to the prison’s site director to enroll in Ashland’s program.

“It immediately hit me that this was a real-life college degree,” said Hopkins, 37. “It was hard. It took a lot of work. It took a lot of discipline, and it taught me discipline. And that was one of the turning points in my life.”

Hopkins got out of prison during his second semester and finished his degree at home, an experience he said was much different than the one behind bars because he had unfiltered access to the internet. Now he’s working to get his bachelor’s degree through Liberty University. His uncle is paying for it.

Those who want to continue their education after prison can face roadblocks by participating in the Second Chance Pell offering. That’s because there’s a set amount of money Pell recipients receive and a concrete time in which they can use it.

Meagan Wilson studied landscape of higher education in prison as part of her work with consulting group Ithaka S+R. One of the biggest takeaways was how little was actually known about the space, including Second Chance Pell. The experimental program could have real implications for those using their one shot at the grant.

“We didn’t know what the quality of that programming was,” she said. “I think that’s a lot of the issue is, that there hasn’t been a lot of that kind of quality assurance.”

In the outside world, people have the freedom of choice in the market. Options are far more limited in prisons. But Ashland officials said no one’s forcing students to enroll or use their Pell allotment.

“We’re an educational institution, and we do everything we’re able to help the students,” Marshall said. “But ultimately, we are not a re-entry nonprofit organization.”

An Opening of the Floodgates?

And now more educational institutions will have the option to enter the sector. The most recent federal relief package included a move to restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated people. While those advocating for face-to-face contact are pleased about the expansion, they said they’re worried about changes.

“I am afraid that now this is just going to open the floodgates to there being economic incentive for all sorts of other colleges to come in,” CUNY’s Jacobs said.

Ashland’s Marshall downplayed any immediate plans, pointing out that details of the rollout haven’t been specified. But he did say the university has broader experience than others in the space and knows how to scale.

The expansion has been on administrators’ radars, though. In an October 2020 interview with Crain’s, Ashland president Carlos Campo reiterated that the school’s top spot in the prison eduction landscape is important.

“As the leader now in the nation, we don’t want to lose that position,” he said. “So that’s certainly part of our longer-term strategy.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.