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Where college access is a matter of luck

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood


Fleeting opportunities

College programs for people in prisons are expected to proliferate across the country next year as incarcerated students once again become eligible for federal Pell Grants.

But, as Charlotte West’s story this week illustrates, expanding access to higher education isn’t quite that simple. Who gets access to college programs in prisons is often a matter of geography or luck, Charlotte writes. And even established programs can be fleeting.

“There is unequal access to college options across states and even within facilities,” Charlotte writes. “Some end up being transferred to another institution before they finish. Colleges may end their programs. Or, like in Washington, a prison can close altogether.”

Her story, which was co-published by The Seattle Times, focuses on the closure of the Washington State Reformatory and what happened to the 50 people who were enrolled in college programs there when the prison announced in summer 2021 that it was shutting down.

Despite its crumbling walls and tiny cells, the 112-year-old facility had been a sought-after destination because of its education offerings. Suddenly, it all evaporated.

None of the 12 students who were in a bachelor’s program there have been able to finish their degrees in their new facilities, Charlotte reports. Among the 38 students working toward an associate degree at the reformatory, at least half have not enrolled in any other program elsewhere.

“I just knew in my gut that if [the prison] closed, most likely my college career was over,” Thomus Davis told Charlotte.

Prison education, Charlotte says, has been shown by a large body of research to reduce violence and keep people from going back to prison. And studies have shown the value of providing education to people who won’t ever go home.

But, she writes, “inconsistency threatens to undermine the transformative power of those opportunities.” 

Over two years at the reformatory, Davis—who is 26 years into a life without parole sentence—had gotten about a third of the way to an associate degree. At his new prison in eastern Washington he’s now been on a waitlist for a vocational program for more than a year.

— Sara Hebel

+ Read Charlotte’s story and sign up for her newsletter, College Inside.

++ Register for a webinar Charlotte is moderating next Thursday about student debt cancellation for incarcerated borrowers. 

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We plan to grow in 2023, adding in-depth higher ed reporting to more communities. You can help us get there. Here’s where to give.

Our new HBCU student network editor

We’re thrilled to welcome Wesley Wright as the assistant editor of our new HBCU Student Journalism Network. Wesley’s the assistant director of student media at Florida Atlantic University and a former education journalist. He’s also worked on the ReNews Project, which helps start and revive student news organizations at HBCUs and elsewhere.

Wesley joins Jarrett Carter Sr., the editorial director of the HBCU Student Journalism Network, on the team. The network’s first cohort of paid student fellows will start in January. They’ll focus on covering their campuses for regional and national audiences while exploring trends affecting the entire HBCU sector. 

Read more about the network and sign up to get updates on the project. If you have story ideas or suggestions, please send us a note. We’d love to hear from you.

Cover community colleges in California

Help us tell the story of a system that serves 1.8 million students. Our partner, CalMatters, is hiring a reporter to cover California’s community colleges. That reporter also will work with us as part of the Open Campus Local Network. Here’s where to apply.

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