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How a Little-known Ohio University Became the Biggest Provider of College in Prisons

The Weekly Dispatch
A Second Chance
JPay tablet running a learning management system
JPay tablet running a learning management system
Back in 2014, Ashland University was a poster child for the tribulations of the small, tuition-dependent college. A Christian university with roughly 2,200 undergrads in Northeast Ohio, it had to layoff 23 people, cut its men’s soccer team, and saw its debt downgraded to junk bond status.
Then a surprising lifeline showed up.
The U.S. Department of Education began an experiment in 2015 to allow incarcerated students to use Pell Grants at a small group of colleges. Such grants in prisons had been banned for more than 20 years. Dubbed Second Chance Pell, the program started with just 63 colleges.
Ashland was one of them. It had long been involved in prisons, starting a local program in 1964. And it was ready to offer distance education on tablets many incarcerated students already had. That’s how this small Ohio university became the biggest provider of college education in American prisons — more than twice as large this year than any other.
For Ashland, Second Chance Pell has turned into real money, more than $30 million since it started. So while its on-campus program has shrunk, the prison enrollment has ballooned. Undergraduate enrollment on campus fell to 2,177 this fall, which is now dwarfed by the 3,518 incarcerated students.
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. 
The Marshall Project probed that controversy in December and this month our Open Campus reporter in Ohio, Amy Morona of Crain’s Cleveland Business, dug into what’s happening at Ashland.
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.
Shaken Faith
How is the pandemic shifting students’ perceptions of higher education? That’s what New America and Third Way are tracking in a series of polls. Their latest, which surveyed just over 1,000 college students in December, found that, overall, students are resilient and forgiving. But in some areas they are losing confidence. 
For one, students are increasingly questioning the cost of their degrees, especially as they also report worrying about getting any type of job after graduation. 
And, the researchers said, “the lackluster pandemic response from institutions has shaken student faith.” For example:
  • 51 percent of college students agree that “the way my institution handled the pandemic this past semester made me trust its leadership less.”
  • Half of college students agree with the statement that “my institution only cares about the money it can get from me.”
See the full poll results here.
Elsewhere on Open Campus
• The pandemic has drastically changed the job outlook for new college graduates, Jeff Selingo writes in Next this week. When job postings started to fall off last spring, Jeff says, those that required a college degree declined more than jobs for high-school graduates. Postings for new graduates with bachelor’s degrees, he says, fell by 40 percent last spring. 
What’s clear, Jeff writes, is that for learners of all ages breaking into the post-college job market is increasingly about the skills they possess, and less about where they go to school or their specific degree.
• When Yiran Fan, a University of Chicago doctoral student, was killed this month in a spree of arbitrary shootings, his death got little attention in the U.S. Not so in China, Karin Fischer writes in latitude(s) this week.
His death “left a huge scar” for Chinese students in the U.S., Karin quotes another doctoral student saying. It’s a grim reminder, Karin writes, of how perceptions about violence and safety color how prospective students and their parents view the United States. The U.S., in fact, ranks last among major study destinations for safety.
Spotlight
The Pandemic Is Speeding Up the Mass Disappearance Of Men From College
The decline in enrollment has been seven times as steep among men as among women.
 
 
 
 
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