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Expand Postsecondary Education in Prison

Our philanthropy addresses barriers facing currently incarcerated adults who don’t have equitable access to high-quality postsecondary education.

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How We See the Problem

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the prison population in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent decades, with one in a hundred adults—about 2.3 million—currently incarcerated. Nearly all of those individuals will return to their communities at some point, and research has demonstrated that postsecondary education dramatically improves the odds of successful reentry into the community and the labor force.

However, access to programs and cost of programs are obstacles, and often the programming is disconnected from career opportunities.

The majority of incarcerated individuals—64%—have a high school credential. They’re academically eligible for a postsecondary education program; but for most, it’s out of reach. Unfortunately, 93% of colleges don’t provide higher education in prison. Of those that do provide programs, many have limited capacity to serve all interested individuals.

Ascendium’s Approach

Our aim is to support efforts that can help the field better understand what types of postsecondary education in prison programs are effective, how to forge the systemic and institutional partnerships needed to get them in place and how to spread and sustain best practices on a broad scale in order to catalyze genuine systemic change.


Outcomes we seek

Our system-level outcomes include: the development of robust state and national partnerships to share data, best practices and outcome metrics; an increase in the number of eligible incarcerated students able to enroll and complete programs; and the creation of postsecondary options that offer high-quality instruction and curricula, leveraging technology for student access and success.

How we work

We fund initiatives that help develop systems and best practices for high-quality postsecondary education in prison. This means collaboration between partners in the field to ask the right questions, share best practices and data, and remove institutional barriers to program quality, accessibility and student success.

Grants to Expand Postsecondary Education in Prison

Optimizing Delivery Systems for Higher Education in Prison

Minnesota Department of Corrections|$150,000|1/2020 - 12/2020
As part of Ascendium’s Optimizing Delivery Systems for Higher Education in Prison initiative, this grant supports the Minnesota Department of Corrections, in partnership with the "Just Education" Collaborative at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, Inver Hills Community College/Dakota County Technical College and Augsburg University, in preparing to launch their “College at Prison” effort to reimagine postsecondary education offerings across all prison facilities in Minnesota.

Optimizing Delivery Systems for Higher Education in Prison

Iowa Department of Education|$150,000|1/2020 - 12/2020
As part of Ascendium’s Optimizing Delivery Systems for Higher Education in Prison initiative, this grant supports the Iowa Department of Education, in partnership with the Iowa Department of Corrections, Iowa Central Community College, Des Moines Area Community College and the University of Iowa, in developing a plan for expanded postsecondary education options across Iowa that are workforce-relevant and support varied academic and career pathways.

Career Navigator Initiative

Minnesota Department of Corrections|$1,692,430|1/2018 - 12/2020
This grant supports the Minnesota Department of Corrections in increasing access to high-quality career and technical education for incarcerated students at four prisons in Minnesota. New certification (OSHA and Forklift) and training (Heavy Equipment Operation) opportunities will be combined with advising to help students obtain gainful employment post-release.

Career Navigator Initiative

RAND Corporation|$495,696|1/2018 - 12/2020
This grant supports RAND Corporation in assessing the implementation of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MNDOC) Career Navigator Initiative. RAND will analyze MNDOC's development and implementation of services, take-rate of Career Navigator services, and students’ success in finding related employment or continuing college after release.

Ensuring High Quality Higher Education in Prison Programs

Institute for Higher Education Policy|$1,903,426|6/2018 - 10/2020
This grant supports the Institute for Higher Education Policy in developing a set of key performance indicators for higher education in prison that will help practitioners use data strategically to improve programs and promote student success.

Supporting the Success of the Second Chance Pell Program in Five States

Vera Institute of Justice Inc|$180,000|6/2018 - 11/2019
This grant supports the Vera Institute of Justice in its work at eight college prison programs to pinpoint priority improvement areas and develop plans for a two-year technical assistance engagement aimed at helping programs move more students toward degree completion, connect to reentry pathways and obtain employment.

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