Opportunities for Expanding a Higher Education in Prison Research Infrastructure

How might HEP stakeholders and their affiliates grow, amend, and adjust existing research practices to further develop a field-generated, sustainable RI?
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While many relationships, agreements, and incentives have already been built in the field of HEP, there are still numerous opportunities for developing and expanding upon these three elements to create a fully-fledged RI. Some of these opportunities involve building on and improving existing elements, such as the relationships between programs and DOCs that allow for rigorous and open evaluation of program components. Others involve creating totally new organizations and protocols, such as an ethics-centered data infrastructure where programs can store and share their data to further research in the field. And some involve overcoming key barriers to the advancement of research, such as the existing silos that prevent cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in HEP. These opportunities, combined with the existing elements outlined in the previous section, inform the next section of this paper detailing strategies for advancing an HEP RI.

We highlight examples in this section to encourage the consideration of existing practices and how those might be supplemented or shifted to develop an RI that will best serve incarcerated learners. We encourage the reader to identify any gaps in the opportunities we have described and respond to suggestions we have included regarding how the field might address those opportunities.


Guides for implementing HEP stress the critical importance of establishing protocols between administrators and agencies in regards to data collection and analysis—suggesting a need for improvement across the field.1 Even within an individual HEP program there often exists a series of staggered relationships that can complicate factors from the day-to-day running of a program to decisions around measuring goals and outcomes. For example, an HEP must operate in concert with its respective DOC, but these two entities can be parallel rather than intersecting. For many program evaluators and researchers, navigating DOC policies without an inside guide can be so challenging it ends the research effort.2

The HEP field is populated with a wealth of student- and practitioner-led coalitions organized around mutual support and resource sharing, like the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FIGN), Bard Prison Initiative’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prisons, the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NY-CHEP), Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, and the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-Step) Initiative. But these relationships of practitioners and students are organized around running HEP programs, not necessarily around studying them or collecting and using data to enhance HEP in a broader scope.

All stakeholders in HEP would benefit from a learned society or association that focuses specifically on HEP empirical research, collaborates on how to advance it, and builds up the human capital needed to conduct rigorous research that supports students, improves educational outcomes, and legitimizes the field. For instance, there is immense opportunity for formalizing and chartering a learned society or research association specific to HEP research the way that the Society for Research into Higher Education aims to advance our understanding of higher education as a field “through the insights, perspectives and knowledge offered by systematic research and scholarship.” Aligned with this mission, it is focused on stimulating new forms of research on higher education as a field of study, promoting the development and widening of research methodologies, providing opportunities for the dissemination and publication of research and scholarship, and developing opportunities for researchers and their research to shape relevant policies and practices.


Perhaps the largest challenges to empirical research in HEP are the deep field silos that divide stakeholders and impede research innovations. Within HEP there are a series of complex bifurcations on how programs should be administered: corrections-oriented vs. social justice-minded philosophies; in-person vs. online or hybrid delivery; academic vs. vocational curricula. These different camps and their intersections operate with their own practice standards, professional associations, and preferred methods. Some groups have better relationships with DOC data owners, which skews available research in the field to a particular metric and methodology. This arguably accounts for the historical skew toward recidivism as the key metric for all prison education evaluations. Academic journals only reinforce these divides, which also bakes in extant problems in methodologies and discourages diverse study designs that ask new research questions and invite new types of researchers.

For example, while the field has applied commonly used rigor standards, such as the Maryland Scale, for studying the effect of education on recidivism, it has also accepted the methodological practice of grouping all forms of education offered in prison together during these evaluations. Even in some of the most comprehensive empirical studies, researchers tend to combine higher education with other in-prison educational programs—such as adult basic education (ABE); high school and GED programs, sometimes referred to as adult secondary education (ASE); and career and technical education (CTE)—when measuring student outcomes.3 While most authors do acknowledge that different programs probably have differential effects on learners, the practice of evaluating all “correctional education” as a composite program complicates the ability to isolate the relative effectiveness of HEP specifically within the field’s already limited canon of empirical research. Due to the prevalence of meta-analyses in the field, which necessarily depend upon combining the results of relatively homogenous studies, this conflation has become more or less conventional.4

Not only have researchers conflated HEP with other prison education programs in an attempt to increase methodological rigor, but they have adopted scales of rigor that do not necessarily suit the field at large. Rubrics such as the Maryland Scale privilege quantitative analyses such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, although those designs may not always be possible or desirable in the prison context.5 The emphasis on rigorous quantitative analysis also affects which metrics are chosen for research, as more student-centered variables such as psychological well-being or employment-related soft skills do not as easily lend themselves to such analyses. Developing an HEP-specific scale for methodological rigor would not only be more inclusive of more qualitative and mixed-methods research, which has increasingly been conducted in recent years, but would also encourage the exploration of new outcomes that further our understanding of the impact of different programs on learners who are currently or formerly incarcerated.

Policymakers have already accepted that HEP is a valuable investment from a social welfare perspective; the field now needs to focus its attention on using nuanced educational metrics to measure and promote access and success across a diverse array of outcomes and student subgroups. For instance, ensuring that eliminating the Pell ban leads to quality programming that both reduces recidivism and has beneficial effects on a variety of student- and program-centered outcomes (e.g. skill-acquisition, retention and completion rates, employment, psychosocial development and well-being) will require an emphasis on all of these educational metrics moving forward, along with their interrelationship. As such, building an ethical data infrastructure based on these metrics is another opportunity within the current foundation of agreements operating within HEP.6 Currently, there is no standardized, anonymized data reporting that accounts for the collection, storage, analysis, and sharing of information about HEP programs and students. More than a decade ago, the US Department of Education published “Correctional Education Data Guidebook,” which prescribed standards for educational data collection upon individuals’ entry into the correctional facility. The initiative was not adopted, but data standardization efforts are necessary to form a baseline for future studies on students and their outcomes. Such metrics, ideally, would be updated if and when students enter and exit educational programming, including HEP.

Similarly, there are no consistent ethics guidelines and/or transparent IRB processes for conducting HEP research across the field. While the Common Rule (45 CFR 46) governs all research allowed to be conducted with incarcerated participants, individual personnel from disparate carceral systems at the federal, state, and local level control researcher access and have their own review processes. Even when granted, researchers are often asked to sign agreements declaring that “I understand that the Department may withdraw from this agreement or project at anytime” or “DOC can revoke my study at any time,” which can make these agreements precarious and the research endeavor a risky and less appealing investment for the researcher.

Finally, an opportunity for expanding an HEP RI is in the adoption of participatory action research (PAR) frameworks for involving people who are currently or formerly incarcerated in shaping the future of the field. PAR is an umbrella term for a diverse set of research methodologies and practices that recognize and acknowledge the capacity for knowledge production when traditional research subjects are included as genuine collaborators. By attempting to perform research not “on” but “with” target communities, PAR frameworks can strengthen communication and build trust with historically exploited groups. The work of past combined research teams suggests that participatory research is not only ethical, but also efficacious. For instance, one such group has recently reported that because incarcerated researchers gathered the qualitative data for their study, participants answered with more candor and honesty: “‘The interviewers allowed me to trust that my answers would be to ‘our’ benefit as prisoners and not to ‘our’ detriment,’” explained one interviewee.7 HEP research, and consequently HEP students, stand to benefit from the popularization of PAR frameworks for research inside. An HEP RI can facilitate this ethical paradigm shift by helping outside researchers share and refine relevant methodologies, nurturing the institutional relationships necessary to directly involve incarcerated individuals in shaping HEP research, and organizing training for incarcerated researchers that also serves to support their education and professional growth.


There are many intersecting spheres of influence that directly affect how HEP operates. These include academia, mainstream media, government agencies, and private philanthropy, many instances of which we have detailed in the previous section. However, none of these drivers have worked to fill the lacuna of empirical research around HEP quality, and in fact, many have counterproductively devalued such efforts. With an inchoate body of diverse research on HEP programming and its impacts, there is no incentivizing mechanism tying research findings to HEP quality assurance. In other words, there is no process for applying HEP research findings to HEP practice or strong reason for the field to develop one.

One of the more compelling benefits of an RI is the acceleration of research dissemination and integration of that research into applied practice. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) observed that medical research insights were not resulting in better health outcomes. In response, the NIH supported the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program in 2006 to support the transition of clinical research into specific health interventions, resulting in the establishment of a consortium of 60 university-based research centers across the United States.8 Similarly, within K-12 education, the UChicago Consortium on School Research “conducts research of high technical quality that informs and assesses policy and practice in the Chicago Public Schools” (CPS). Through a mix of public and private granting institutions, the Consortium collaborates with practitioner partners to ensure their research is relevant to educators and co-develops research questions using practitioners’ expertise. As a result, the Consortium produces research that directly guides CPS policies and provides solutions for educational challenges using actionable data.9

Any fully fledged HEP RI will have to operate within the set of local, state, and federal policies and regulations that govern the correctional space, whether these policies are helpful or hindering to the vision and process of developing an RI. Policy design and implementation can incentivize research and evaluation, whether through explicit language built into legislation or specific interpretations of how legislation must be applied. For example, the state of Pennsylvania interpreted the expansion of Second Chance Pell to include a mandatory evaluation component, and are currently conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to determine the impact of programming being offered in the state. While the methods and outcomes of this study were narrowly defined by the state DOC, this nonetheless provides an example of federal policy encouraging research into the effectiveness of HEP programming. Just as the expansion of Pell funding provides an opportunity to center evaluation and quality assurance, there are also opportunities to expand upon existing state funding structures to prioritize HEP research. States such as Tennessee and Washington currently include line items in the state budget in support of HEP programming—Tennessee’s funding even goes directly to the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative which manages the programming in the state.10 State aid that can be applied to incarcerated learners could potentially include guardrails to ensure accountability and quality programming for students.

Last, there is a tremendous opportunity to build on existing initiatives and incentivize more HEP research that is student-driven and that involves student-led organizations. For example, the Petey Greene Program, which coordinates volunteers to tutor students enrolled in HEP programs, operates in several states and generates annual reports on its impact and financials. Prison-to-Professionals (P2P) similarly provides opportunities to bolster HEP by providing formerly incarcerated individuals with the training and preparation necessary to either pursue higher education or launch a professional career. Their partnership with Operation Restoration on the Unlock Higher Ed campaign represents a commitment to widespread advocacy as well as intervention. These types of HEP organizations not only have similar missions and values, but directly support the research and goals of HEP.

If you could wave a magic wand to improve one thing about HEP research, what would you change and why?
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  1. Tanya Erzen, Mary R. Gould, and Jody Lewen, Equity and Excellence in Practice: A Guide for Higher Education in Prison, (2019), p. 11 and Brian Walsh and Ruth Delaney, First Class: Starting a Postsecondary Education Program in Prison, (2020), p. 7, 20-21, 29, 33.
  2. See Guy Gardner, “The Relationship of Higher Education Programs on Recidivism Delivered Through a North Carolina Community College in a Correctional Setting,” (2004), p. 55 and Niares Hunn, “The Role of Online College Courses in Rehabilitating Offenders,” (2015), p. 14.
  3. See Stephen J. Steurer, Linda Smith, and Alice Tracy, “Three State Recidivism Study,” (2003) and Linda G. Smith, “Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Education Outcome Study,” (2005).
  4. It is virtually impossible, for example, to read any media coverage, policy brief, or grant proposal focused specifically on HEP that does not reference the RAND Corporation’s 2013 meta-analysis of 58 studies measuring the effects of any in-prison education programs (be it ABE, ASE, CTE, HEP, or a programmatic mix) on recidivism. The study–which is not peer-reviewed–concludes, “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not,” while acknowledging that “it is not possible to disentangle the effects of these different types of educational programs.” Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N.V. Miles, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correction Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, (2013), p. 57-58.
  5. See David Wilson and Anne Ruess, Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation, (2000), p. 66 and Kristofer Bret Bucklen, “Randomized Controlled Trials in Correctional Settings,” (2020).
  6. Ithaka S+R has explored the responsible use of student data in higher education and this framework may be helpful in the HEP context. See Rayane Alamuddin, Jessie Brown, and Martin Kurzweil, “Student Data in the Digital Era: An Overview of Current Practices,” (2016).
  7. Justin Thrasher, Erik Maloney, Shaun Mills, Johnny House, Timm Wroe, and Varrone White, “Reimagining Prison Research from the Inside-Out,” (2019), p. 12-28. Other examples of PAR in prison research include María Elena Torre and Michelle Fine, “Bar None: Extending Affirmative Action to Higher Education in Prison,” (2005); Carla Marquez-Lewis, Michelle Fine, Kathy Boudin, William E. Waters, Mika’il DeVeaux, Felipe Vargas, Cheryl “Missy” Wilkins, Migdalia Martinez, Michael G. Pass, and Sharon White-Harrigan, “How Much Punishment is Enough? Designing Participatory Research on Parole Policies for Persons Convicted of Violent Crimes,” (2013); and Yasser Arafat Payne and Angela Bryant, “Street Participatory Action Research in Prison: A Methodology to Challenge Privilege and Power in Correctional Facilities,” (June 2018).
  8. Bonnie Jones, Alexandra Lightfoot, Molly De Marco, Malika Roman Isler, Alice Ammerman, Debi Nelson, Lisa Harrison, Brenda Motsinger, Cathy Melvin, and Giselle Corbie-Smith, “Community-Responsive Research Priorities: Health Research Infrastructure,” (2012).
  9. See “UCHICAGO Consortium on School Research: Discovering What Matters Most.”
  10. See Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI), “Our History” and Washington Community and Technical Colleges, “Washington’s College in Prisons Program.”