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Twenty incarcerated students are the first in the U.S. to be enrolled in a top 10 university

Northwestern’s first prison education cohort earn associate degrees, paving the way for future successes

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.

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Education has a unique power to transform people’s lives for the better.”

Jennifer Lackey
NPEP founder

“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.

Next, law school

One current student enrolled in Northwestern’s new bachelor’s degree program who plans to pursue postgraduate study is Benard McKinley, 37. McKinley studied to become a paralegal while in prison, and eventually argued for his own resentencing. 

McKinley originally was sentenced to 100 years for a murder he committed when he was 16. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed McKinley’s 100-year sentence in 2016, finding that it amounted to a death sentence, and resentenced him to 39 years. In 2020, McKinley’s sentence was reduced again, to 25 years.

Having served the majority of that sentence, McKinley could already be free if he petitioned for early release under Illinois’ youthful offender parole law — enacted in 2019 — but he has chosen to remain incarcerated for the purpose of completing his bachelor’s degree. Upon graduating, McKinley plans to attend law school outside prison and eventually practice as a civil rights attorney — a passion he discovered while incarcerated.

“Prison doesn’t rehabilitate,” McKinley said. “Rehabilitation comes from the individual and his own set of goals. … If this program wasn't in this penitentiary, you would have individuals with no education going back to the community with no jobs, no opportunity. So having this college program instead of just prison has given us the tools to allow us to go out there and find those jobs and opportunities that weren’t given to us.”

A pathbreaking program

When it launched in 2018, NPEP was the first program in the state to offer a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum to incarcerated students. More than 40 Northwestern faculty teach in the program, along with Oakton faculty and dozens of Northwestern graduate and undergraduate students — including many law students and pre-law students — who serve as teaching assistants and tutors.

It is a cross-disciplinary collaboration fueled by thousands of hours of volunteer time on the part of Northwestern and Oakton community members and external partners. The incarcerated students do not pay for their education. Instead, the program has been supported by donations and grants, including a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020.

“Northwestern is proud to be on the vanguard of higher education, with a long tradition of innovation,” said Northwestern Provost Kathleen Hagerty. “This new degree conferral program reflects our mission to bring opportunities for personal and intellectual growth to a diverse academic community, including incarcerated people who otherwise would not have access.” 

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