Twenty students in the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) are making history as the first incarcerated people in the U.S. to be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program offered by a top 10 university.
Across the country from New York to California, elite universities have for decades endeavored to provide incarcerated people with access to high-quality education, empowering those committed to bettering themselves while dramatically reducing recidivism.
Under the standard model, students in jails and prisons earn course credits that can be applied to degrees from partner institutions, but most of the top schools in the U.S. stop short of directly conferring their own degrees to incarcerated students.
The launch of Northwestern’s bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated people, conferred through the School of Professional Studies, represents a milestone for prison education programs at elite institutions and a significant step toward greater equity in higher education. Northwestern admitted the inaugural class in January, after students completed course work required to attain an associate degree from Northwestern’s partner, Oakton Community College. The students are expected to graduate from Northwestern in 2023.
“Universities have a moral obligation to make this a more just society, and none is better placed to do this than a world-class institution like Northwestern,” said Jennifer Lackey, the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern, who founded the Northwestern Prison Education Program. “Education has a unique power to transform people’s lives for the better.”
On April 20, in partnership with Oakton Community College, Lackey organized an associate degree graduation ceremony at Stateville Correctional Center — a maximum security state prison for men in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. Stateville has partnered with Northwestern and Oakton to offer the Prison Education Program since 2018.
The ceremony was complete with a graduate procession, tasseled caps and full regalia. Live music was provided by the Black Oak Ensemble, and supporters enthusiastically cheered on the students as their associate degrees from Oakton were conferred, with most of the class graduating with honors.
“This program aligns with Oakton's equity and racial justice goals,” said Oakton President Joianne L. Smith. “Our faculty were interested in providing access to high quality instruction to incarcerated students, recognizing the transformative impact of education. We are grateful for Northwestern’s partnership in creating opportunities for these individuals to improve their lives.”
People who are equipped with the tools they need to succeed through prison education programs have an increased ability to break the cycle of poverty and incarceration and lead fuller lives. Data show that while the overall recidivism rate for incarcerated people is about 67 percent, it drops to 14 percent for those who earn associate degrees, and even further for higher degrees — to 5.6% for those who earn bachelor’s degrees and zero percent for those who earn master’s degrees.