But Ashland is far from the college-behind-bars you might be picturing (think Bard Prison Initiative
). Instead of professors coming inside, the curriculum is delivered entirely online through tablets
Questions are now dogging the university. Is this tablet education rigorous enough? Also, students have a lifetime limit on Pell Grants — is using them up with the Ashland program going to lead to disappointment down the road?
The pandemic has accelerated debates within prison education about the role of distance learning (a challenging idea when security concerns keep most prisons from having robust Internet connections).
Many other colleges see Ashland as too cozy with corrections departments and Securus
, maker of the JPay tablet. Plus, its expansion to states far from Ohio concerns some. That’s led to fights in New York, with several colleges frustrated that Ashland — a university hundreds of miles away with no connections to local communities or employers — is now moving into numerous prisons in the state.
I asked her what surprised her about the story. First, in a region rich with colleges, she said, Ashland doesn’t really stand out. It’s one of several mid-sized colleges with modest endowments (about $45 million).
“It was surprising to even just learn that a program with a mammoth national footprint was calling the city of Ashland, Ohio, home.”
Amy spoke to several formerly incarcerated people who attended Ashland, complicating the critiques of the program.
“For Kristen, the woman who completed her courses in a Louisiana prison, the experience seemed to spark a love of learning she said she didn’t have in her younger years,” Amy said. “Now, she gets really excited when she learns something new. ‘I look like a small kid that just got a lollipop,’ she told me.”
Questions about these programs are only going to become more pronounced in the next few years. Just before Christmas, as part of several changes to federal financial aid, Congress removed the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. That’s about to open a giant new spigot of money for the sector. Other colleges will certainly be looking at what Ashland has done — for both incarcerated people and its own bottom line.
P.S. We’re hosting a virtual forum in late February to bring various players together to talk about the role of technology in the future of higher education in prisons. Get in touch for more information.