Project Goals

The goal of the Higher Education in Prison Research project, an initiative managed by Ithaka S+R and funded by the Mellon Foundation, is to accelerate the collection, dissemination, and utilization of research pertaining to postsecondary education programs for incarcerated learners. The project facilitates conversations among higher education in prison (HEP) stakeholders, supports shared rigorous research processes and practice standards across an interdependent network of relationships, and promotes the development of an HEP research infrastructure (RI) that coordinates research activities effectively and efficiently. These goals are of particular importance given the forthcoming reinstatement of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students. A research infrastructure will play an integral role in ensuring that policymakers and practitioners have access to standardized data and rigorous research, which in turn will guide policy and practitioners alike.

To meet these project goals, Ithaka S+R engaged with stakeholders at several connection points to gather insights around what conversations and resources may be the most beneficial for developing an HEP RI. These collaborative exchanges were designed to build consensus around key topics amongst HEP stakeholders. Following each conversation, we pulled out key themes to identify resources that would catalyze further collaboration around methodology, incentives, challenges, and priorities that exist within the field.

It is our goal that the resources shared on this platform be used to forge a set of shared norms and systems that support high-quality, student-centered HEP research. Below, we describe the goals and planning behind each of the aforementioned opportunities for collaboration and share the resulting resources.

Phase 1: Pre-Pandemic Project Plans and Activities

The overall aim of the project was to facilitate the construction of a community-responsive, inclusive, collaborative, and effective HEP RI. Work on the project began at the start of 2020, prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the project team’s first step was to learn more about priorities and needs. We started by recruiting an advisory committee made up of seven HEP researchers from diverse backgrounds and professional affiliations, including experts involved in developing, managing, and reviewing or approving resources and structures related to an RI.

The HEPRI Project Advisory Committee

The diverse perspectives provided by this group helped ensure that project activities were relevant and useful for the field of HEP research. During the early stages of planning and recruiting for the advisory committee, Ithaka S+R also examined pertinent literature and resources within HEP and related fields to inform a working discussion paper that outlined the need for an HEP RI, the gaps an HEP RI might fill, the elements of an effective and useful HEP RI, and a potential set of strategies for its construction. The research and advisory components of the project were used to tailor a series of what we hoped would be primarily in-person convenings on the needs and priorities of the HEP community. Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the HEP RI project had to be adapted based on public health requirements.

Phase 2: Adapting the Project During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Though the overarching goals and structure of the project remained the same, some changes had to be made as far as format and participation. For instance, the advisory committee remained a key component of the project, but this group was exclusively engaged virtually. Similarly, the convening series was reconfigured to address the shifting realities experienced during the lifecycle of the project. Originally, the convening series was to include 1) a large in-person introductory gathering of stakeholders across state departments of corrections (DOCs), educational program directors, university administrative staff, and program funders focused on consensus building; 2) a smaller, more targeted, and potentially hybrid working group series that would meet three times over the course of a year to discuss the advancement of a particular topic related to an HEP RI; and 3) a final, larger in-person gathering to ratify and/or amend findings from the working groups and identify next steps. Though a version of these three activities remained a part of the project, they were reimagined for the virtual space. As planned, Ithaka S+R synthesized the insights accumulated through the project activities and produced a series of resources for the field.

Since HEP stakeholders were not able to interact with each other or the project content as previously planned, the Ithaka S+R team opted to create a digital space ( that would allow them to interact with and respond to the resources produced throughout the project. The virtual space was meant to operate as a hub, not only for the project but also for individuals and organizations interested in learning more about and/or contributing to HEP research. The resulting website presents the framework developed to define an RI (i.e. agreements, relationships, and incentives) and the working discussion paper that applies this framework to the HEP context. It also includes a database of HEP research work and the resources produced as a result of the project. The project’s first large virtual convening was used to launch the digital space and introduce it to the field.

In August 2021, Ithaka S+R hosted a webinar to introduce the project to HEP research stakeholders and begin gathering relevant insights from the community. During the webinar, the Ithaka S+R team walked participants through the components of the digital space and invited two panelists, advisory committee members Erin Corbett and Sarah Tahamount, to discuss the role an RI could play in supporting HEP research. Attendees then entered smaller groups where, guided by an Ithaka S+R team member, they collaboratively outlined the potential benefits of an HEP RI, the core issues faced by HEP research, and the stakeholders/resources that could help. The collaborative documents created during these discussions shaped the rest of the project.

Final Phases: Wrapping Up the Project

Following the conclusion of the initial webinar, the project team examined the collaboratively created notes from the small group discussions and pulled out recurring topics. This was to make sure that the project and its outputs were not only aligned with Ithaka S+R’s priorities, but rather represented the greater HEP field. From these key themes, we identified two—funding and participatory action research (PAR) in HEP—that seemed the most salient and the most likely to produce usable resources in the given timeline. With guiding themes in place and outcome goals beginning to crystallize for the final virtual convenings, we engaged additional experts to help plan and facilitate the remaining project activities.

Funders Working Group
The ultimate goal of the funders working group was to create a resource that addressed the current needs of the field and enabled open communication around the topic of funding amongst key stakeholders. To start meeting this objective, we had introductory conversations with a few funders already involved in the HEP space. These informal discussions helped us to better understand how HEP research funding currently works and how an HEP RI might be useful to funders moving forward. Throughout these conversations with funders, the value of collaboration between funders and researchers, as well as the need to better understand the priorities held across different constituent groups, became increasingly evident. Subsequently, we took a two-step approach for the funders working group.

First, we invited a large group of HEP researchers to a virtual forum to share their perspectives concerning the realities of HEP research funding. We engaged two justice policy fellows, Rabia Qutab and Jarrod Wall, from the Education Trust to support the planning and execution of the forum, as well as a project consultant with HEP expertise, Amber McDonnell. Much like the first webinar, the forum provided participants with the opportunity to break into small groups and discuss the primary concerns and challenges facing HEP research, but this time, attendees were asked to share their insights through the lens of what they would like funders to know. Following the forum, the extended project team used the collaborative documents from the forum to once again identify key themes. The primary takeaways from the researcher forum provided a considerable amount of content for the second part of the funders working group, a convening of funders.

The importance of collaboration and open communication amongst funders and researchers was a recurring theme when we informally discussed the potential of an HEP RI with interested funders. To this end, we brought together several funders involved in the HEP space for two brief working group sessions. Our goal was to inform funders of the realities experienced by HEP researchers and uncover shared challenges, priorities, and needs. Before opening up the floor to discussion about what funders wanted to see in future HEP research, we presented the key takeaways from the researcher forum to ground the group conversation in the current circumstances of the field. Participants were then asked to reflect on what they might need from an HEP RI and its potential values, especially given the probable exponential growth of HEP with the reinstatement of Pell for incarcerated learners.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) Working Group
The overarching goal for the PAR working group was to create a resource that was responsive to the needs of the field and had the capacity to catalyze future conversation and collaboration around the working group topic. An attendee of the first webinar suggested that a guide informing internal review boards (IRBs) about PAR might be such a resource, as IRBs were often a sticking point when trying to use the framework in the HEP context. As we began to outline what such a working group would look like with different thought partners, it was brought to our attention that it might be useful to take a step back and examine PAR itself and the benefits and challenges associated with it before producing a more prescriptive deliverable. Similar to the funders working group, the Ithaka S+R team thought it would be beneficial for someone with topical expertise to guide a conversation focused on unpacking the components, obstacles, and advantages of PAR. Subsequently, we engaged Rachel Swaner, a research director at the Center for Court Innovation, as an expert facilitator for the PAR working group sessions and invited six individuals with varying experiences in using participatory methods in HEP to take part in the group. Participants discussed the obstacles, benefits, and realities they had faced while seeking to use PAR in the carceral space and looked ahead to what systems and resources might be put in place to better support PAR in HEP.

The Final Resources

Throughout this brief, we point to the goal of creating resources that can be leveraged by the field. We used insights garnered from the project activities to create a collection of short documents, rather than one extensive final report, to summarize the conversations that took place during the different convening opportunities. The initial resource in this series briefly summarizes the themes and key takeaways from the virtual researcher forum (see “What Do Funders Need to Hear from the HEP Research Community?”). We expand on the themes outlined in “What Do Funders Need to Hear from the HEP Research Community?” in a brief report connecting these takeaways to the topics discussed during the funders working group. The third document briefly summarizes the realities and next steps identified during the PAR working group, and in the final document, we combine our own expertise and the many formal and informal conversations that happened as a result of this work to describe infrastructural challenges that exist for HEP research and potential next steps that may help address them.

The Project Team

Many individuals within and outside of Ithaka S+R have played an integral role in completing this project throughout its lifecycle. We list their names and affiliations below.

Ithaka S+R

Project Partners

  • Jarrod Wall, Justice Policy Fellow of the Education Trust
  • Rabia Qutab, Justice Policy Fellow of the Education Trust
  • Rachel Swaner, Research Director, Center for Court Innovation

The original Ithaka S+R project team also included Meagan Wilson, Rayane Alamuddin, Julia Karon, Emily Norweg, and Catherine Suffern.