Educating the Incarcerated Learner: How HBCUs Can Help


Erin S. Corbett

Minority Serving Institutions, for the most part, were founded for the purpose of providing a postsecondary education to historically excluded populations. In particular, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a long history of service to their respective communities with missions focusing on individual and collective uplift and traditions steeped in social justice activism. These schools served as the primary institutions of higher learning for their African-American students relegated to living and learning within the context of segregation. Today, HBCUs enroll approximately 3% of the nation’s postsecondary population and, despite representing such a small portion of the overall college-going population, graduate 20% of the nation’s African-American college students. As such, the histories, missions, and trajectories of these institutions have consistently demonstrated a commitment to underserved citizens as part of the larger quest for equal educational access.

The success of HBCUs has occurred against the backdrop of our nation’s crisis of mass incarceration. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that 2.2 million persons were in the physical custody of either a state or federal correctional facility. The incarceration rate of the United States, according to Marie Gottschalk’s Caught, is approximately 730 people per 100,000. This rate dwarfs the incarceration rates of all other nations; the next highest incarceration rate is in Russia, at 568 per 100,000, followed by Georgia, at 547 people per 100,000.

The mass incarceration conversation is incomplete without addressing the ways in which race figures prominently in the composition of incarcerated persons. Indeed, as Gottschalk notes, African-Americans are overrepresented in national incarceration rates, being jailed at a rate of 2,285 per 100,000 people; in comparison, Whites are jailed at 400 per 100,000 people. To contextualize an egregiously high overall incarceration rate, she argues that even if African-Americans and Whites were jailed at the rates of Whites, the United States would still have an incarceration problem; this is an accurate assessment. However, the reality is that African-Americans continue to be incarcerated at rates that exceed not only their percentage of the total population but the rates of every other ethnic group. Even further, some research, done by Todd Clear and Devah Pager, suggests that post-release outcomes, like employment and recidivism, vary by race/ethnicity, influenced by the ways in which institutionalized racism manifests itself within communities.

Education is one solution that has been found to decrease recidivism rates and increase employment rates of ex-offenders. Data suggest, much in line with similar data for non-incarcerated citizens and learners, that the more education an incarcerated learner can amass pre-release, the better the likelihood of securing employment and ultimately making the decision to not reoffend. Unfortunately, due to amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 made as a result of the Violent Crimes Act of 1994, federal funding for prison postsecondary education programs was eliminated and the number of programs, as well as enrollment in the remaining programs, decreased. As a result, incarcerated persons were then, and remain now, largely unable to pursue postsecondary study; consequently, the educational attainment gap between incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizens continues to grow.

Given the histories and missions of HBCUs, it stands to reason that they could prove instrumental when thinking about the creation of “inside” programming. Prisons, at both the state and federal level, contain the population to which HBCUs remain committed; correctional facilities are filled, primarily, with under-resourced and disenfranchised African-Americans. But HBCUs do not serve solely African-American students; many have increased their enrollment of non African-American students, illustrating that while the empowerment of the African-American community is perhaps the most visible objective, educational opportunity for all is the driving factor. HBCUs could serve the educational needs of the non African-American individuals as well, providing a comprehensive educational experience that is fully mission aligned and transformative.

In many ways, the potential for HBCU programming for incarcerated learners represents a convergence of two populations often overlooked in traditional higher education discussions. HBCUs often find themselves having to justify their relevance and existence, at times amid accusations that they are racist and/or discriminatory in their admission practices. Incarcerated learners are simply invisible in all education conversations. Incarcerated learners enrolled in GED programming are never counted in secondary program enrollment numbers; they are routinely excluded from the higher education enrollment data upon which researchers rely to thoughtfully discuss policy. If HBCUs decided to extend their commitment to educate the community to one of the most vulnerable populations in our country, the possibilities of prison education reform could be endless and HBCUs could, once again, be at the forefront of educational activism, empowering those most in need of justice.

Erin S. Corbett is Chief Executive Officer at Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., a leading nonprofit that provides academic refresher workshops to incarcerated learners in the state of Connecticut; she writes about her experiences teaching inside here. Corbett earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Education from Swarthmore, an MBA from Post University, and a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania.

From HBCU to PWI: Embracing my career trajectory and story


Kaleb L. Briscoe

Recently, I attended the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. In a session focused on providing support to African American and Hispanic students at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs), the presenter and students of color began to bash Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Rhetoric such as MSIs are not competitive enough, PWIs offer more experiences, students of color only attend MSIs because they are unable to meet the acceptance criteria at other institutions, or the graduates of MSIs struggle with getting into graduate school at PWIs were common themes throughout the discussion. I began to reflect on my own personal experiences as a HBCU graduate and how these experiences played an influential role in my life.

As a second generation college student and graduate of Albany State University (ASU), I understand the importance of lifting MSIs. My mother, a graduate of Paine College and my father, a graduate of Morehouse College, attended HBCUs during a period when acceptance to PWIs was rare for African Americans in the South. Although there have been changes, we are reminded of the importance of MSIs when situations surrounding sociopolitical and campus racial climate arise. One of the most talked about occurrences this year has been is Education Secretary DeVos’s statement on HBCUs:

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

When misrepresentation of HBCUs happen in Washington, there is no surprise of the rhetoric presented at National Conferences such as NACA. It is clear that DeVos and students at NACA missed the opportunity to speak to the factual history of African American Education in America. HBCUs are not the result of the system not working. They are robust responses to an educational system that was not created for minority students. HBCUs continue to focus on educating minority students because PWI’s offer minimal support for this population. Further, MSIs teach students dual citizenship and democracy; while not compromising cultural identity.

My experiences at ASU in organizations such as Student Government Association (SGA) and Student Activities Advisory Board (SAAB) sparked my interest in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA). Further, my interactions with faculty in the classrooms and at internships gave me practical experience and soft skills. My college experience empowered me to work at a technical college, small PWI, and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Using ASU as a catalyst, I quickly learned the importance of working with minorities. Minority students are often eager and motivated to create change. These students approach issues with creativity and use their experiences to build institutional traditions.

Listening to the above-mentioned views made me wonder why these students felt obstinately about MSIs. Had they heard disparaging stereotypes come from the media? Had they heard of a bad experience? What was driving these thoughts? Was it simply a lack of historical understanding? All institutions of higher learning face issues; therefore, we know that controversy knows no color.

My counter narrative to the aforementioned views of MSIs is grounded in my experience. MSIs reaffirm cultural identity and provide a supportive learning environment. Being challenged academically and socially, they prepare students for professional experiences while enriching their personal development. They welcome diverse populations and provide a fertile learning experience for all students that should never be mistaken for a second class education. Most graduates of MSIs build lifelong friendships, mentors and colleagues. What is most important to graduates of MSIs is the part they play in the legacy of their institution.

My connection with MSIs prepared me for my current doctoral studies at the University of Nebraska. As we seek to prepare students to be global educators, we should include MSIs in our conversations. Those who have attended an MSI understand the heritage and passion that graduates have for their institution. Students who choose other educational options should visit to create an unbiased and authentic opinion. MSIs have thrived on smaller budgets, minor resources and less staff yet produce an equal amount of successful minority graduates.

The question is what can you do to support these institutions? Share your talent and time with these schools. Encourage students to visit MSIs. Consider working with faculty of MSIs on academic projects. Extend opportunities to students at MSIs for mentoring, internship programs, scholarships, and research. There are so many opportunities to build bridges and enhance the educational landscape through partnerships and collaboration. By simply sharing your story with students, you will make a difference.

Kaleb L. Briscoe is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Higher Education program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). She serves as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Department of Educational Administration. Prior to pursing her Ph.D., Kaleb served as the Associate Director of Student Life at the University of Houston-Victoria.