Monday, November 16, 2009

A Better Education For Inmates

Wesleyan University, a selective, private liberal arts college in Connecticut, has expanded its academic programs to a local prison and is offering courses to inmates. While earning a degree from Wesleyan University while in prison is unobtainable, instructors of the courses insist that the same rigorous standards held in the classrooms on campus are held in the prison.

Here is my argument for this as a disruptive innovation. Wesleyan Professors are teaching the same courses to both inmates and traditional students at its main campus. From the article, instructors state that standards are identical and that "an A in prison is the same as an A on campus and that the inmates will be entitled to use the university’s career services upon release." However, traditional students at Wesleyan University pay approximately $51,000 for the course (tuition, room, and board) while the inmate's education is supported by public and private prison education funding. Wesleyan is taking a risk in its position as a reputable university. With college budgets shrinking, its interesting to see a university add such a program when the return on investment of educating criminals (many who will likely not re-enter society until many years down the road) is very low.

Wesleyan University maintains a good reputation as an institute of higher education through rigorous admission standards. For inmates, these standards mostly apply. What does the value of a degree from Wesleyan University hold when a once convicted criminal, released from prison, is out in society applying for jobs with "Wesleyan University" atop their resume? If an inmate, having taken classes in prison, was released and applied to the main campus of Wesleyan University in order to complete their degree, should they be given the same opportunity for admission that a honor-role high school gradate applicant would? As a parent of a student, or student yourself, would you want convicted criminals of serious crimes on campus everyday?

Please don't misunderstand me and think that I am against education in our prison systems. I am a huge advocate for rehabilitating the incarcerated. But I do see this as a move within education that could undermine a major concern for colleges and universities: prestige. This is an innovative position to take for a prestigious university when the role of educating inmates typically rests with community colleges and separate prison education initiatives.

1 comment:

  1. Bard College was the first college to offer this innovative educational solution for prisoners, with their Bard College Prison Initiative. Wesleyan must have followed their innovative lead.

    I personally think education is one of the most powerful forms of crime prevention and reincarceration, so I'm a huge fan of Bard's and Wesleyan's innovative programs. A study recently found that post-secondary education was the most successful and cost-effective method of preventing crime. Indeed, 19% of adult prison inmates are completely illiterate. For more info, visit: