March 2018

Table of Contents


Scores of Californians have spent the past three years laboring to accomplish the unprecedented: bringing together our enormous criminal justice and public higher education systems to build a new generation of college students and graduates. The reasons why are clear – higher education reduces recidivism, changes lives, and builds stronger communities. We can no longer consign incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women to ending their education with a GED; they, like all of us, deserve the opportunities that hard work and a college degree create.

This publication highlights California’s successful efforts to build public higher education access for thousands of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, both in custody and on college campuses throughout the state. It celebrates the growth and California’s vision for student outcomes along the full continuum from incarceration to release and beyond. In just three years, California has gone from offering face-to-face college in one prison to full-credit degree-building college courses in 34 of 35 prisons at all security levels. Almost 4,500 unique students are enrolled in these face-to-face college pathways each semester, and they consistently outperform students on campus. Critically, more than 95% of those in prison and jail will come home and here, too, the state’s public colleges and universities have stepped up. Reentry college programs for these new students have expanded from one to nine California State University campuses, and from fewer than ten to almost 40 community colleges.

But the initial bloom is fading, and the hard work is just beginning. In just three years, we have built something momentous by calling upon faculty, administrators, corrections staff and others to go beyond their job descriptions for the greater good of the state and these students. California is now at a critical juncture. Reaching these new students is an innovative investment, and as with all new investments it will take focus and support to fully realize the benefits. We must overcome a range of large and small issues, from textbook costs to union agreements. Every dollar invested in correctional education returns $4 to $5, but we must ensure that the colleges have the resources to invest that initial dollar. We must also serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students with quality, meaning face-to-face degree pathways with academic counseling and support, just as are available to all students in our public system. Only if we resolve these challenges can we prevent this experiment from falling apart under the weight of overlapping regulatory schemes and budget disputes. California must do this correctly, or we risk losing what we have built.

by Debbie Mukamal and Rebecca Silbert

1. Why Public Higher Education?

Why Public Higher Education?

Public higher education is a key – though often overlooked – criminal justice partner. The benefits of high-quality higher education accrue regardless of origin, of course, and both public and private universities can be incalculably valuable. But the impacts of mass incarceration are vast, and the public higher education system offers our only chance to scale an effective response.

The Chancellor’s Office & the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

"With 114 community colleges, if we can pull it off here, any other state ought to be able to pull it off as well."

In California, over eight million residents are estimated to be living in the community with an arrest or conviction record. We have 35 prisons and 58 county jails, and approximately 700,000 Californians are estimated to be in prison, in jail, or under criminal justice supervision on any given day. The system is enormous, but it has met its match: our public higher education system, with 114 community colleges serving over two million students, 10 University of California (UC) campuses, and 23 California State University (CSU) campuses, is equally immense.

Our community colleges in particular are critical partners, and they remain the primary point of entry for most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. The colleges are “open access,” meaning they must enroll any student over 18 who can benefit from instruction. They are already addressing many of the challenges faced by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students including lack of college-readiness and food, housing, and financial insecurity. They are located in all our neighborhoods, accessible to everyone including those who have been incarcerated. They are located close to every state prison, and 90% of the state’s jail inmates are less than ten miles from a community college. Building the partnerships takes commitment, but the foundation is already there.

Higher education is a proven solution. It will not alone solve the ills of mass incarceration, but it can and should be reaching incarcerated and formerly incarcerated potential students, welcoming them on campus, and supporting them through to credential, degree, transfer and employment. If we achieve this, we will all be better for it.

2. California’s Explosive Growth:
2014 - 2017

California’s Explosive Growth:
2014 - 2017

In 2014, California offered little to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated college students. Since then, California has transformed its public higher education landscape. Gaps still exist, of course, and much work remains. But the transformation and collaboration between the higher education and criminal justice systems over the past three years is nothing short of remarkable.

The Presidents’ Perspective

“There is no better place to be when you get out than the California community colleges.”

Three years ago, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provided career technical (CTE) classes and education through GED or high school diploma, but individuals seeking more lacked nearly any high-quality options. Only one of our 35 prisons offered a face-to-face college program, the Prison University Project at San Quentin prison. Unless students were fortunate enough to be transferred to San Quentin and admitted into the college program there, incarcerated students eager to further their education were almost entirely limited to low-quality, non-interactive correspondence courses with minimal educational support and guidance. The only other high-quality program, Chaffey College’s degree program at the California Institute for Women, was hampered by a state law that restricted the face-to-face component to tutoring and student support. Combined, both programs served only a few hundred students out of the more than 125,000 men and women who were incarcerated on any given day.

A College Expands and Finds Success

"What we learned really quickly was, when you empower somebody and you provide them an opportunity to go to school, they will."

Formerly incarcerated students on the state’s public college and university campuses were similarly invisible three years ago. Just one of the 23 CSU campuses hosted a program for formerly incarcerated students, called Project Rebound. The UC program, Underground Scholars, was just beginning at the Berkeley campus. And, although formerly incarcerated students were enrolled on community college campuses, only a handful of the colleges had a student group or support program for formerly incarcerated students.

More than any other state in the nation, California’s public higher education system is now reaching men and women who have been adversely impacted by mass incarceration, whether they are in prison, in jail or on our college campuses. Higher education opportunities have exploded, largely spurred by a 2014 law (SB 1391) that allowed community colleges to teach face-to-face in prison, and allowed them to be compensated for incarcerated students just as if those students were on campus. The resulting momentum saw not only growth in the number of colleges teaching inside correctional facilities, but an enormous increase in the number of on-campus student groups and student support programs for formerly incarcerated students. A statewide directory of the numerous in-custody and on-campus programs can be found here.

2014 - 2017

California community colleges now teach face-to-face transferrable, degree-building college courses in 34 of the state’s 35 prisons. Almost 4,500 students are enrolled in these face-to-face college classes every semester – more than in any other state, and almost as many as are enrolled in Yale’s entire undergraduate class. Thousands more are still in correspondence courses, waiting for face-to-face.

The on-campus support program for formerly incarcerated CSU students, Project Rebound, has expanded from one to nine CSU campuses and more campuses seek to replicate the program. Enrollment continues to grow every semester.

In addition to the Rebound expansion, the Underground Scholars Initiative has expanded to UCLA with a sister program at UC Davis. A third of the state’s 114 community colleges now have a student group or an on-campus program similar to Project Rebound or Underground Scholars, and more community colleges are in the process of building support systems for formerly incarcerated students.

3. College Students in Prison and Jail

College Students in Prison and Jail

The greatest sea change in California has been inside the state’s prisons. Face-to-face community college unique enrollment inside CDCR rose from zero in 2014 to 4,443 students in fall 2017 – for face-to-face enrollment, that is more than any other state and more than the total number of students enrolled in the federal Second Chance Pell Pilot Program across the nation.

These face-to-face community college courses are transferrable, degree-granting courses, allowing students to continue their education even if they are transferred to another institution, and even if they are released to an area of the state different from the one in which they are incarcerated. The courses are offered in both men’s and women’s prisons, in every type of yard at every level from minimum to maximum security. They are not limited to low-security students or students nearing release. 

Community colleges teaching the face-to-face classes report waiting lists and growing demand in every prison. Notably, while face-to-face enrollment has increased, correspondence enrollment in the state’s prisons has dropped from 8,400 to 7,377 over the past four semesters. 

The state’s jails have also expanded their offerings, with several of the 58 jail systems partnering with their local community colleges to offer GED completion, career technical courses, and, where feasible, full-credit transferrable college courses. If the students are not staying long in jail, the colleges are providing short courses or introduction to college courses, designed to ease the transition to on-campus enrollment and success.

Because our criminal justice system is racially inequitable, these increased offerings in prison and jail also mean that California’s community colleges are able to serve more students of color than ever before. The colleges may not be able to change the state’s disproportional rates of incarceration, but they can provide college opportunities to those who have been caught up in the system and, in so doing, they are working to close access, achievement, and completion gaps.

Much progress still needs to be made. Among other things, continued success will require resisting the urge to replace face-to-face courses with non-interactive distance education, since research shows that these students are unlikely to reap the benefits of higher education if it is not face-to-face. The high cost of textbooks also has the potential to undermine these growing community college-prison partnerships. But the state is moving in a positive direction and, with commitment, we can continue to succeed.

Leaders in the Field

Bakersfield College

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and it works.”

In 2015, Bakersfield College began teaching one course on one yard within one prison, with 21 students. By spring 2018, Bakersfield College offered 50 courses on 17 yards in ten different prisons and jails in the Central Valley, with almost 800 unique students. This makes Bakersfield College one of the largest providers of face-to-face college in prison in the country. The College provides in-person education counseling and planning on site, as well as assistance with enrollment, tuition waivers, and textbooks. A full-time Program Director oversees the classes, serves as the point of contact and solves the numerous daily hurdles. The Program has garnered strong support from the District Chancellor, College President, County Supervisors, the City’s Mayor, prison staff, college staff and faculty, and the students themselves. Bakersfield College students inside CDCR consistently earn higher grades than their on-campus counterparts.

Cal State LA

“They’re giving me an opportunity, and it’s transcended over to you.”

Cal State LA offers the only face-to-face BA completion program in the state prison system. The program is cohort-based and recruits from students inside CDCR who meet state transfer requirements. It operates in a high security prison – Lancaster – with many students serving lengthy sentences, including life. As with the community colleges, Cal State LA students are performing as well or better than their counterparts on campus, and faculty rave about the classes. The program has faced challenges different from the community colleges, in part because California’s income-based tuition waiver is limited to incarcerated students enrolled at community colleges. Cal State LA is a Second Chance Pell Pilot site, and for now is able to cover tuition with a combination of Pell grants and private foundation funds. Given statewide student demand for more education, however, a more sustainable long-term solution is needed.

Success Metrics

At Solano Community College, success rates for African-American students in prison are 16% higher than success rates for African-American students on campus.

In 2017, incarcerated students in the Cal State LA Communications class earned a class GPA of 3.61, while their campus counterparts achieved a class GPA of 3.25 in the same class taught by the same faculty member.

In a Cerro Coso College class taught in prison, on campus and online by the same professor, in-prison class GPAs were approximately 10% higher than on campus and about 25% higher than online.

4. Formerly Incarcerated Students
on Campus

Formerly Incarcerated Students
on Campus

Many formerly incarcerated students begin their higher education journey while incarcerated but are released before degree completion. Thousands more are living in the community with no college credits, hoping to obtain better employment by earning a credential or degree. California’s public colleges are again leading the nation by systematically creating pathways to campus and to degree completion for these potential students.

On campus as in custody, support has increased exponentially over the past few years. For the most part, formerly incarcerated students prior to 2014 stayed in the shadows or did not enroll at all. Probation departments and parole units often overlooked the local community colleges as potential partners. Support programs were rare, and students rarely self-identified.

Since 2014, community college programs have grown across the state, Project Rebound has replicated across nine CSU campuses, and UC’s Underground Scholars has expanded. Formerly incarcerated college students are disclosing their status, facing down stereotypes and demanding a second chance. Probation and parole departments are training their officers to ask their supervisees about educational goals, and developing connections with their local community colleges. College campuses are identifying staff contacts for probation, parole, and reentry organizations, helping to build pathways to enrollment and degree completion for formerly incarcerated students. A third of all community colleges now have a formal or informal program for formerly incarcerated students, with peer support, outreach, and advocacy. Perhaps most importantly, formerly incarcerated student leaders are emerging, embracing public leadership roles, overcoming the stigma of incarceration, and offering hope to thousands of potential students behind them.

Leaders in the Field

Shasta College

“I’m going to walk you through this chapter of your life, but you get to create the future.”

Shasta College sits in a politically conservative and rural area of Northern California. In 2013, the Sheriff began allowing participants early release from jail on the condition that they enroll in STEP-UP, a career-technical program at Shasta College for formerly incarcerated students. Staffed with a full-time program manager and a dedicated Probation contact, STEP-UP has built partnerships to address the housing, transportation, food insecurity, and other needs of its students. The student cohort benefits from bridge courses, peer support, and immersion in the campus culture from health fairs to art performances. Two neighboring counties have asked to replicate the program, and the county criminal justice funding partnership allocated funds to support the program. In 2017, STEP-UP received the statewide Chancellor’s Student Success Award.

Success Metrics

Between 2011 and 2016, 97% of fully matriculated Project Rebound students at San Francisco State graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree within six years, compared to 57% for CSU students statewide.

In just two years, Shasta College’s STEP-UP enrollment rose from 15 to 50 students, and drop outs fell to 16% from 40%. In fall 2017, nearly half of the 50 STEP-UP students made the Dean’s List with a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

One-third of all scholars in Compton College’s Formerly Incarcerated Students in Transition (F.I.S.T.) program maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher. F.I.S.T students are nearly all African-American and Latino.

5. Roadmap for Other States

Roadmap for Other States

California’s unlikely marriage between higher education and criminal justice has benefitted from several legislative and policy building blocks, all of which can be replicated in other jurisdictions.


Apportionment for incarcerated students
SB 1391 (2014) allowed community colleges to offer face-to-face courses inside prison and to include these students in their budgets just as if they were on campus. This provided an avenue for fiscal sustainability, although it does not fully cover the additional costs required to staff a program in custody or additional costs required to bring a new and non-traditional student group to degree completion.

Universal tuition fee waiver
The California College Promise Grant (formerly the Board of Governors Fee Waiver) covers tuition for every low-income student in the state’s community colleges, including those who are or who have been in custody. California’s tuition waiver has been critical to the success of the expansion within prisons and jails.

Lack of admission barriers
California’s public colleges and universities have no undergraduate admissions barriers for students who have been in the criminal justice system, nor have they ever had such restrictions. Students who are or who have been in prison or jail are eligible to attend a UC, CSU and community college just as any other student in the state.


Focus on criminal justice reform
California has experienced this growth during an era of larger criminal justice reform, while national attention is focused on the adverse consequences of and potential solutions to mass incarceration. New focus on the importance of providing evidence-based rehabilitation programs has incentivized criminal justice agencies to partner with their local public colleges. 

Top leadership support
The state has benefited from strong leadership in both corrections and higher education, including the Governor, the Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, the Chancellor of the California State University, and the Chancellor of the University of California. Although change does not materialize solely from a top-down directive, having the vocal support of senior leadership has been critical to the implementation success of the partnerships.

Capacity to increase enrollment
California’s economy has remained strong, providing an incentive for community colleges to increase enrollment. Although insufficient on its own, the growth incentive meant that campus advocates were able to gain internal support from a range of stakeholders who otherwise might have been opposed to these new programs.

Flexible local funding
California’s community colleges have access to categorical funding streams that can be allocated locally for a broad range of purposes, including serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. Most colleges serving these students use state-provided Equity Funds, among other sources. Although Equity funds are generally not sufficient on their own to cover all costs, the fact that the funds are not restricted to traditional race-based definitions has provided a means by which those who are committed to prioritizing these students can support their programs.

Correlation with system priorities
Both the higher education and criminal justice systems are designing solutions that align with existing initiatives. For example, California, like other states, is implementing Guided Pathways to focus student choices and course scheduling into a smaller number of more valuable options. Just as on campus, students inside prison and jail will benefit from a Guided Pathway that culminates in credential or degree.


Academic transfer pathways
Because the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been providing career technical education (CTE) in prison for decades, local community colleges were able to focus on full credit transferrable degree pathways for incarcerated students from the beginning. The colleges did not first have to meet a demand for short-term job training, which has been an issue faced in other states.

Respecting jurisdiction
CDCR and the community colleges view each other as partners, with separate spheres of control. The colleges don’t interfere with the security obligations of the institution, and the institutions don’t interfere with the education processes of the colleges.

Educationally driven
Higher education partnerships are housed in the state’s educational structure, not in criminal justice, even when the focus is incarcerated students. This ensures academic independence and educational quality, and sends the message that currently and formerly incarcerated students are students like any other.

Student integration
On campus, formerly incarcerated students are integrated into the student population. Neither the colleges nor the criminal justice agencies (such as probation and parole) funnel formerly incarcerated students into special off-campus programs or siphon them off from the rest of the student population. This allows students to develop a transformative student identity and reap the social capital benefits the campus experience provides. 

Fostering student leadership
Momentum and advocacy in the state has been both top down and bottom up, and includes the student voice as well as staff, faculty, and community advocates. The development of student leaders has been particularly critical, as there is no stronger voice in support of higher education opportunities than the students themselves.

6. Call to Action

Call to Action

California stands at the edge of an incredible transformation – higher education access and success for thousands of residents who would otherwise be left behind. But we achieve this goal only if the state continues to prioritize, support and deepen these ongoing efforts. The state must focus on outcomes for this endeavor to be a long-term success.

Recognize the efforts of both systems
Expanding higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students is often viewed as criminal justice reform, with legislators and others extolling the public safety benefits and reduced recidivism that derives from a college education. But the colleges are carrying half the burden; they are effectively providing a public safety service without being part of the public safety budget. Moreover, the value of education goes far beyond just reduced recidivism, as it can transform individuals, families, and communities. The state must recognize the efforts of both systems as equal partners when making budgeting decisions.

Incentivize local budget allocations
California’s community college system delegates most budget decisions to the local level. Community college districts need an incentive to allocate budget resources and staff for these students, particularly while the programs are in a developmental stage. In a recent survey of community college presidents and CEOs, more than half stated that they have or want to create a program for formerly incarcerated students, but 60% identified lack of financial resources to compensate dedicated staff as their biggest challenge. Reaching any new student group requires intention and focused professional development. We are beseeching the colleges to create new partnerships, to work in new environments, and to develop new competencies. We must commit to an initial investment if we want them to succeed.

Double down on the details
CDCR and the community colleges need to double down on the details for students in prison. These new partnerships are fragile. Seemingly mundane issues like who pays copying costs and whether the college faculty can use the desks of CDCR staff can derail the entire arrangement. Larger issues such as asking college faculty to travel long distances, or asking CDCR staff to be available for the colleges that are teaching in the evenings, can upend complex union agreements. It is not easy, and on-the-ground faculty and staff in both systems are filing grievances while they work through these changing job assignments and descriptions. New agreements can be reached if the resources are there, and once resolved these issues should diminish. But it will take time and dedication.

Establish sustainable funding
When budgets tighten and community college enrollment caps are reduced, teaching inside prisons and jails will be disincentivized because it is more expensive for the colleges to provide education inside a correctional facility. Yet Proposition 57, passed in 2016 and supported by the Governor, incentivizes rehabilitative programming – including college education – and relies on the availability of community colleges teaching in prison. To fulfill the goals of Proposition 57 and continue serving these students, the state must prepare for the budget downtown by establishing sustainable funding.

Meet quality standards
Continued pressure to meet quality standards is critical. For students in prison or jail, this means face-to-face instruction, substantive educational counseling and guidance, and coordination between the different colleges teaching inside so that students benefit from Guided Pathways just as their campus counterparts do. Students, faculty and advocates must fight against systemic pressure to replace face-to-face with online education, which, while opening more access, can fail to benefit unprepared students such as those in prison or jail. Correspondence courses by mail should be eliminated. Distance education should be offered only if face-to-face education is not feasible, should be fully interactive, should include full educational counseling and support, and should adhere to quality standards. 

Reinstate Pell Grants for incarcerated students
Low-income incarcerated students in California are eligible for the College Promise Grant just like any other student in the state, but California is the exception. Nationally, incarcerated students are ineligible for Pell Grants unless their college is one of 67 that participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. The Pilot Program should be extended, and the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students should be lifted.

Implement a solution to exorbitant textbook costs
Colleges teaching in prison should not rely on students or their loved ones to cover the high cost of books and supplies, which are estimated to be $1700 annually for a student in community college. This is an extraordinary expense for a student earning between 8 cents and $1.00 an hour who must also pay for necessities such as toothpaste, soap, and phone calls to his or her family. Currently, the colleges providing face-to-face instruction are committed to not charging incarcerated students for expensive textbooks, and they are building towards an open source textbook model. CDCR has state funding to provide open source electronic textbooks for all students in prison including those enrolled in the community colleges. Although they have been working on it for a few years, CDCR’s plans have not yet come to fruition. Until then, the colleges are using a variety of solutions to cover the exorbitant costs, including paying for textbooks out of their own budgets. These solutions are not sustainable over the long term. The potential for textbook costs to destroy this entire endeavor cannot be overstated.

Build degree pathways for incarcerated students
Although they normally operate independently, the community colleges must cooperate if they are to build degree pathways for incarcerated students. While in prison, students can be involuntarily transferred between institutions and between yards. Often, they must change colleges when they are moved. These involuntary movements should not disrupt a student’s educational journey or hamper his or her progress to degree. We will not achieve student outcomes if each college offers its own degree pathway, and if students have to begin anew each time they are moved.

Open avenues to career and leadership
California must open avenues to career and leadership. The state will not enjoy the benefits of higher education if formerly incarcerated college students are unable to obtain on-campus employment or if they are unable to pursue careers after graduation because of occupational and licensing barriers. To truly transform individuals and communities, the state must reduce occupational licensing and other barriers for formerly incarcerated professionals, as well as create opportunities for expungement for those who have demonstrated that they have changed their lives.