The current movement in California to make college degrees accessible to persons with juvenile and criminal records includes several efforts, including the following: streamline the relationship between prisons and local colleges to deliver on-site and remote courses during incarceration; bridge the transfer of transcripts from schools behind bars to colleges on the “outs”; develop college-coordinated programs; and build student-led groups at colleges. The key players in this movement are advocacy centers, community-based organizations, foundations, colleges, government agencies, and student organizing groups themselves.
Supporting access to higher education includes strategic aids to ensure students’ success in college. Participation in student-led groups appears to correlate most strongly with the successful retention of young adults who are attending college after incarceration. This insight about the impact of student-led groups comes from a study conducted September 2017 to May 2018 by Dr. Morghan Vélez Young-Alfaro of California State University Fresno–a study inspired by her participation in the Next Generation Fellowship. Dr. Alfaro collaborated with 10 community college students to closely follow them for one year, learning about their past and current educational, health, and justice system experiences in order to understand their pathways into college.
With 190 hours of interview transcripts and 4,000 journal entries from the 10 college students, these experiences come into focus and show shared trends among the students. For example, in terms of educational barriers and benchmarks faced by the students:
- 10/10 students completed G.E.D.s and high school diplomas outside of a high school context (i.e. behind bars and in community/online programs as young adults).
- 5/10 students accessed their first college courses inside juvenile or adult facilities.
While there are many important findings from these crafty, resilient, committed college students about their navigation through tremendous educational, health, and justice system barriers, the findings discussed in this article highlight two important results that can be used to inform the movement to make college degrees accessible to persons with records.
First, college retention appears to be significantly impacted by students’ participation in student-led groups. These student-led groups are characterized by four distinctive features including peer mentoring, direct advocacy and organizing activities in the local area, group-building activities such as having meals together, and services such as tutoring and field trips. Hence, the backdrop of going to college after incarceration, for these students, is colored by the community-building and boots-on-the-ground work with peers who have similar life experiences.
During the course of this study, three of the 10 students left college early. While two of the three were involved with college-coordinated services, none of them participated in student-led groups. Overall, we can see the following among the students who left college early:
- These 3/10 students did not participate in student-led groups that have advocacy and activism features.
- 2/3 attended a college where no such student-led groups existed; 1/3 attended a college with student-led groups, but not with advocacy and activism features.
- 2/3 students participated in campus-coordinated programs: one student participated in a program for former foster youth and another in a program for persons with records. Neither program had key features of student-led groups such as peer mentoring nor advocacy and activism.
Comparatively, both college-coordinated services and student-led groups provide educational supports (e.g. tutoring and resources) but the student-led groups in this study provided an important ingredient for college success: opportunities for advocacy and activism. The college students in this study who participated in student-led groups remained enrolled in college, reported social and interpersonal aspects of school connectedness, and consistently articulated their specific visions for what they will do with their college degrees in terms of transforming social inequities.
Secondly, in addition to the potential benefit of college retention from participation in student-led groups, all of the students in the study navigated post-traumatic and chronic stress. As researchers like Barnert and colleagues (2017) show, incarceration, specifically, is a traumatic experience. For the current study, the college students were tested on four occasions throughout the year on five indicators of post-traumatic and chronic stress for the ways that such shows-up in daily life (e.g. jumpiness and hypervigilance). These indicators were cross-referenced with their life experiences of homelessness, involvement in the foster care system, and violence. All 10 students experienced combinations of trauma-inducing experiences and exposures, but involvement in student-led groups was the strongest factor involved in leaving or staying in college.
In terms of the health and justice system barriers that create traumatic experiences and chronic stress, the students navigated and continue to navigate several scenarios. In the points below, we see the accumulation of post-traumatic and chronic stress:
- 4/10 students experienced homelessness multiple times from the time they were small children.
- 4/10 students survived domestic violence as children.
- While 10/10 of the students were incarcerated in juvenile halls, 6/10 students were incarcerated in youth prisons and adult prisons after time in juvenile halls.
- 4/10 students were in foster care, although 2/4 of these students live with family today.
- 2/10 students have immediate family members who were incarcerated when the student was growing-up.
- 10/10 students have 2+ trauma indicators out of the 5 possible indicators.
- 5/10 students have 4 to 5 out of 5 trauma indicators.
Ultimately, when comparing the seven students who remained enrolled in college across the one-year study and those who left college early, post-traumatic and chronic stress were distributed across all of the students. Connection to a student-led group with advocacy and activism components were missing from those three students who left college early.
It is important that all Californians interested in the movement to make college degrees accessible for this population of young adults reflect on how to implement features of student-led groups at various junctures in young people’s lives before, during, and after incarceration. Peer mentoring, direct advocacy and organizing activities, group-building activities, and services appear especially relevant for young adults with records to successfully complete college.
The findings from this study also suggest that those seeking to support persons with records in accessing college degrees should caution themselves from investing solely in campus-coordinated programs operated out of student affairs offices. It is important to direct both attention and funding to student-led groups and their hallmark features; these groups create unique opportunities for students to cultivate community and serve as change agents in concrete ways in the local context.
Also important for consideration is investing in understanding and offering opportunities for transforming post-traumatic and chronic stress from a lifetime of barriers through culturally appropriate, non-clinical approaches demonstrated by community-based leaders like Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA). Non-clinical approaches reflected in works like that by Burnes and Rice (2009) show the importance of non-oppressive, carefully tailored, wellness opportunities for persons historically marginalized by institutions. These sorts of approaches to healing are reminiscent of features found in student-led groups available through peer mentoring and group-building activities.
The next steps in this study include a final round of data analysis with two of the research participants serving as paid Research Assistants. Together, the Research Assistants and Dr. Alfaro will move the study into a published article and promote further research in this area. Ongoing research can benefit the movement to make college degrees accessible to persons with juvenile and criminal records by preventing unintentional delays such as wrong turns in program and service design.