Improving access to higher education for underserved populations in the U.S. is a core focus of our work at WGU Labs. We have recently focused on one unique population of potential learners: individuals who are incarcerated. Earlier this year, we invested in Nucleos, whose platform provides secure access to educational programs in correctional facilities, to explore the possibility of WGU delivering bachelor's degrees to adults incarcerated in state prisons. WGU Labs recently traveled to Atlanta to attend the 13th National Conference on Higher Education in Prison to learn from active practitioners, currently and formerly incarcerated students, and support organizations. These are our top four takeaways from the conference.

1. Access to education in prison remains fragmented, technologically restricted, and subject to unique governance challenges.


The role of technology in prison education has seen a revival since the COVID-19 pandemic forced policy reforms within several departments of corrections that had resisted technological reforms for decades, citing risk. Additionally, in July 2023, incarcerated individuals became eligible for federal Pell Grants once again to pursue higher education for the first time in 26 years. But these advances do not mean the floodgates have opened. Because every state has a unique approach to the structure of state prison governance, access to technology is disparate across the nation. While some prisons are highly centralized, others enjoy more independence. Each prison should be considered unique in governance, technology policy, capacity, funding, and approval structures.

Every prison falls on a spectrum, with rehabilitation on one end and punishment on the other. Those focused on rehabilitation appear to be more supportive of Prison Education Programs (PEPs) and all that comes with them, including the perspective of educators, institutions' missions, collaboration with higher education, and the IT infrastructure that makes fully online or hybrid programs possible. Beyond governance, a recent study conducted by Ess Pokornowski at Ithaka S+R, with grant support from Ascendium, finds, “While Pell reinstatement will likely increase educational access for students who are incarcerated, it has also raised concerns about the role of educational equity, digital fluency, and surveillance in higher education in prison programming.” Key findings from the study highlight the following gaps in providing prison education:

  • The majority of programming is still provided fully in person
  • 24% of the state prison programs that responded noted that their students cannot access any technological device
  • Across regions, desktop computers are more commonly available for educational purposes than tablets
  • Programs whose students use laptops express greater satisfaction with student technology access and use
  • Most students cannot use technological devices to access library resources
  • Respondents were optimistic that they would be able to increase student access to technology within two years; however, responses were considerably more mixed regarding internet access

2. Departments of corrections and accreditors were largely absent.

Every conference is different and appeals to different audiences. With the reinstatement of Pell, many institutions visited NCHEP to learn how to either start or maintain a PEP according to the new Federal requirements, which require approvals from three main entities: departments of corrections and their relevant stakeholders, accreditors, and the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education hosted a helpful panel on financial aid and the PEP application. The conference was primarily attended by representatives from higher education institutions and stakeholders who support incarcerated people. 

However, the departments of corrections and accreditors were not present to answer questions or guide burgeoning programs. Accreditors, in particular, have been pressured to interpret and adapt the Federal requirements quickly, without additional capacity, due to the results of the negotiated rule-making process that bolstered the reinstatement of Pell. Only time will tell if that lack of guidance from accreditors will slow down new PEPs or prevent universities from renewing their Second Chance Pell sites.

3. Incarcerated students are graduating from bachelor's and doctoral programs and gaining employment at free-market wages.

Through video conferencing, the attendees at NCHEP had the opportunity to speak directly with currently incarcerated workers Victoria Scott and Leo Hylton, both Fellows of The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. Both spoke confidently about the opportunities to work at free-market wages during their incarceration, while the average compensation in Maine prisons falls between $0.58 and $3.50 per hour. The Maine Department of Corrections was featured as a leader in forging carceral employment policies that include the following:

  • Victim’s restitution is automatically deducted from salaries
  • Residents must put 10% of their gross pay into a savings account (up to a minimum of $1,000) to help plan their release
  • Residents are required to pay room and board for housing costs, which saves Maine taxpayers money
  • Residents are required to pay their fines, restitution, child support, etc.

Formerly incarcerated people are also being hired by the colleges and universities that granted them their credentials on the inside and at the support organizations that helped them along the way. The lived experience of these individuals makes them valuable employees at organizations trying to better serve incarcerated learners. One exemplar we met was Kelly Gilliss, a graduate assistant for the Second Chance Program (SCCP) and the Office of Technology Services (OTS) at the University of Baltimore. Gilliss learned to code in prison and was later hired to design and maintain the technology at the heart of the University of Baltimore’s Prison Education Program. 

Jobs for the Future (JFF) also shared a library of resources aimed at Normalizing Education and stated that one of their North Stars is to fold incarcerated learners into their plan for the future of work across the country. JFF supports a Fair Chance Corporate Cohort and advocates for state and federal policy solutions that remove barriers and establish conditions that create equitable economic advancement for people with records.

4. Consortia for Prison Education Programs signal new opportunities and challenges for EdTech and IT companies.

One model for providing a more comprehensive menu for incarcerated students is to create a consortium that blends offerings from various actors like community colleges and universities, formerly incarcerated students, organizations representing their interests, and Departments of Corrections into multimodal pathways. Faiza Chappell at The Vera Institute of Justice amassed a nationwide landscape of consortia. A statewide consortium can serve as a mechanism for relevant stakeholders to provide input to prisons to determine the eligibility of PEPs. It is unclear, however, whether EdTech and IT companies are fully embracing the opportunities and challenges consortia present.

In speaking with Dr. Darren Wheelock, director for the McNeely Prison Education Consortium (MPEC) at the Center for Urban Research at Marquette University, it became more apparent that consortia provide a unity of purpose that education providers use to help counter the fractured policy landscape they encounter from prison to prison. EdTech companies could benefit from understanding and nurturing the unity that directors of consortia across the country have successfully achieved. Understanding how connected a consortium may be would reveal opportunities to strengthen multi-state and multi-institution relationships. By leveraging found unity and actively strengthening consortia in their consultative sales processes and service offerings, EdTech companies can more comprehensively meet the needs of various stakeholders. Founders can then use the learnings from consortium-focused sales to inform their products' and services' functionality and interoperability downstream.   

While it's clear more work needs to be done to understand how the state of being incarcerated might affect the student experience, the conference highlighted the promise of not only advancing higher education in prisons but also inviting currently and formerly incarcerated scholars and experts to the table to provide guidance and wisdom to ensure program success.