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The Business Case: Increasing Education Access for Returning Citizens

“We can only be as successful as the communities we serve,” said Bank of America’s Matt Elliott.

On Wednesday, July 10, the Detroit Regional Chamber — in partnership with Bank of America, Corrections to College California, and the Vera Institute of Justice — hosted Investing in Futures at the Detroit Golf Club. The breakfast briefing featured the Chamber’s Sandy Baruah alongside national and local speakers to discuss access to postsecondary education for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students.

“We don’t have the luxury of leaving any part of America behind,” Baruah said.

Recent reports by the Vera Institute of Justice and Corrections to College California offered findings on the economic and societal benefits of access to postsecondary education, from employment to public safety.

Vera’s 2017 report found that Michigan alone would save $10.7 million on incarceration costs if Congress were to repeal the federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. Postsecondary education in prison can help formerly incarcerated people overcome barriers, avoid recidivism, and rejoin communities. As Michigan faces a talent gap, greater access to postsecondary education provides potential workers with skills that employers seek.

“When you are faced with job applicants who fight so hard for their education, you have a potential employer who has already taken steps to put their past behind them and  overcome obstacles and develop critical thinking skills that are important for jobs,” said Opportunity Institute’s Rebecca Silbert.

Access to education in prison has an authentic impact. Brian Jones, an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student set to graduate magna cum laude this fall, earned 28 college credits while incarcerated in 2014. He wrote college papers with golf pencils. Jones ultimately earned an associate degree from Oakland Community College, graduating summa cum laude.

“My transition from prison to real college and society was very smooth because of the people who helped me,” Jones said. In addition to pursuing higher education, he runs his own business — a clothing store in Detroit called 10 20 30.

From the employer end, Ideal Group’s Frank Venegas recalls hiring gang members who eventually became longtime employees. At the time, the unemployment rate in Southwest Detroit was around 40%; now it’s down to 12%, he said.

“Ideal became a prison friendly workplace,” Venegas said.

Currently, regional industries and businesses require qualified, local employees and returning citizens with the educational experience, credits, and degrees are well equipped for the jobs.

“It’s foolish to cast them aside,” said University of Michigan’s Barbara McQuade.

Key Takeaways

  • Increasing access to education for returning citizens aligns with the Chamber’s region-wide goal, shared by Gov. Whitmer and several organizations, to improve the postsecondary attainment rate from 40% to 60% by 2030, targeting the 693,000 adults with some college but no degree.
  • Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison is likely to reduce recidivism rates and save states a combined $365 million in costs per year, said Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Laura Tatum. Most people in prison are academically eligible for postsecondary education but cannot gain access to resources. Read the fact sheet.
  • Corrections to College California reports that college in prison makes communities safer, saves money, and builds economy. Read the fact sheet.
  • There is a persistent stigma that surrounds returning citizens. While considering that not all felonies are created equal, employers should work to change attitudes, re-think hiring practices, and offer opportunities for several facets of the community.
  • Philanthropy arms of large corporations need to create wraparound services and programs for reentry services (i.e., food, housing etc.) and facilitate the transition for returning citizens.