Pathways Overview

The Pathways Project is a five-year, Vera-led initiative that provides selected states with incentive funding and technical assistance to expand access to higher education for people in prison and those recently released. The project seeks to demonstrate that access to postsecondary education, combined with supportive reentry services, can increase educational credentials, reduce recidivism, and increase employability and earnings. By validating what works through independent evaluation, the project also hopes to spur national replication and long-term public investment.

Funded by five leading philanthropies—the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—the Pathways Project builds on the substantial body of empirical evidence showing that increased educational attainment is a critical factor in keeping people out of prison and helping people who were incarcerated become contributing members of families and communities.

The project encourages participating states to create a continuum of education and reentry support services that begins in prison and continues in the community after release until the student has achieved a degree or professional certification. It is unique not only for its emphasis on coordination between pre- and post-release programming, but for the partnerships that participating states are required to form with and between state and local officials, corrections and parole agencies, schools of higher education, employers, and community-based service providers.

Goals of the Initiative

  • Increase postsecondary education attainment among the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated population;
  • Increase employability and earnings among formerly incarcerated people as a means of disrupting the cycle of inter-generational poverty
  • Reduce recidivism and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by crime and incarceration
  • Demonstrate that there are cost-effective methods for providing access to postsecondary education and support services for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.

States Selected to Participate

  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina

Key Features

  • In-prison and post-release postsecondary education provided by accredited local colleges
  • Vocational, developmental, GED, and college readiness courses and academic support services
  • Targets individuals within two years of release through two years post-release
  • Postsecondary education degree or credential attainment is a primary focus 
  • Alignment of courses, degrees and certification programs with local labor market trends
  • Transfer of college credits from prison to colleges in the community
  • Links to local employers
  • Parole supervision practices that support pursuit of postsecondary educational opportunities
  • Expanded use of technology solutions for in-prison academic services
  • Mentoring, tutoring, and reentry support services
  • Comprehensive and coordinated in-prison and community-based case planning
  • Vera provides technical assistance and sub-grant funding to the states as well as fosters a learning community among states
  • Third-party evaluation focuses on implementation (replicability and scale), outcomes (attainment of GEDs, postsecondary degrees, employment), and impact (recidivism)

Why offer higher education in prison?

People who are involved in the criminal justice system are severely undereducated compared to the general population. Among federal and state inmates, about 37 percent do not have a high school diploma or a GED compared to 19 percent of the general population. Seventy-eight percent of the prison population lack postsecondary education compared to 49 percent of the general population.1 An extensive body of literature suggests that education is key to improving many of the long term outcomes for this vulnerable population, their families, and the communities in which they live.  While approximately 44 percent of the individuals released from prison are re-incarcerated within three years, either for committing a new crime or violating the conditions of their release,2 researchers find strong inverse correlations between recidivism and education. Offenders with higher education levels are less likely to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated. Studies suggest that graduating from college programs can decrease recidivism by approximately 72 percent.3  

The benefits of education extend beyond an impact upon public safety. First, increasing education attainment could increase both employability and earnings. Data from the US Census Bureau show that the difference in median earnings between people with a high school diploma and those with an associate’s degree was $8,261. The difference jumped to $22,884 when researchers included those who had completed a bachelor’s degree.4 Researchers project that this disparity in earnings is likely to increase further in coming years, as will employers’ demand for college credentials. It is estimated that by 2018, nearly two thirds of all job postings will require applicants to have some level of postsecondary education.5 Second, increasing the education attainment of parents could impact the education achievement of their children.6 Researchers find that education levels of parents are a strong predictor of the educational achievements of their children. Finally, because many ex-offenders tend to be concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods, increasing their education attainments and employability could also positively impact the communities they return to after their release from prison. Studies find that postsecondary education has a significant impact on both the frequency and the quality of civic engagement and participation (e.g., voting and volunteering).7 Increased earnings would also greatly benefit the quality of life in those communities through local spending and improvements to housing.

For more information about the Pathways Project, contact Fred Patrick.


Elizabeth Greenberg, Eric Dunleavy, and Mark Kutner, Literacy Behind Bars: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey (NCES 2007-473) (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).

Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011).

C. A. Chappell, “Post Secondary Correctional Education and Recidivism: a Meta-Analysis of Research Conducted 1990-1999,” Journal of Correctional Education 55, no. 2 (2004): 148-169. M. E. Batiuk, “The State of Post-Secondary Education in Ohio,” Journal of Correctional Education 48, no. 2 (1997): 70-72.

These data refer to 25-64 year old workers in New York State in 2007. Data were retrieved from on November 23, 2011.

5 Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010).

6 Eric F. Dubow, Paul Boxer, and L. Rowell Huesmann, “Long-term effects of parents’ education on children’s educational and occupational success: Mediation by family interactions, child aggression, and teenage aspirations,” Merrill Palmer Q (Wayne State Univ Press) 55, no. 3 (2009), 224-249.

7 Thomas S. Dee, “Are there Civic Returns to Education? (Working Paper 9588),” NBER Working Paper Series (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003).

Photo credit: Prison Entrepreneurship Program

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*/ The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series—as part of Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project—explores postsecondary education in prison and its benefits—during and after incarceration—...
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*/ The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series—as part of Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project—explores postsecondary education in prison and its benefits—during and after incarceration—...
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Michigan Highlights

Higher Education Institutions (2): Jackson College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

Prisons (2): Macomb Correctional Facility and Parnall Correctional Facility.

Pilot Communities: Pontiac and Kalamazoo.

Eligibility: Individuals must be nearing two years of release from prison, intending to return to one of the pilot communities, and have a high school diploma or equivalency.

Key Program Components:

  • Shared housing units for program participants.
  • A four-week assessment phase including:
    • Power Path – a computer-based assessment that identifies learning challenges, helps determine intervention strategies, and teaches organizational skills to students.
    • Compass – an adaptive college placement test that evaluates core skill levels.
    • Labor Ready Assessment – an evaluation of job readiness behaviors.
    • Burning Glass – a software program that provides information about prospective employment in chosen areas specific to precise geographic locations, industries, or occupations.
  • A College Readiness Plan to be developed for each student with the student’s input. The plan will identify how courses taken in prison will fit into the student’s overall college plan.
  • Digital Literacy and Keyboarding – a course leading to a Microsoft-issued certificate of completion.
  • Supervised computer lab with dedicated time for Pathways students.
  • Study Skills and Structured Study Hall Time – single-session workshops and weekly one-hour facilitated study sessions with additional study hall time available in library or through an available classroom.
  • Course Placement (based on assessments) including:
    • College Courses – At least four different college courses per year that are transferable from community colleges to baccalaureate colleges and universities.
    • Vocational Courses leading to state or national certifications in auto mechanics or building trades, potentially leading to college-approved credits toward degree attainment post-release.
  • Academic interventions lead by Michigan Department of Corrections program staff for students who need remedial assistance.
  • Student Success Workshops that help students complete/submit college applications and familiarize participants with services provided by the college.
  • Employment Counselors who develop highly specific, individualized reentry plans to assist with employment, housing, health, and other areas of need.
  • Pre- and post-release workshops on family reintegration, substance abuse, veterans’ benefits, and cognitive skills training.
  • Counseling and mentoring to assist students with successful transition to the education community.
  • A trained parole agent familiar with the Pathways project assigned to each participant.
  • Partnership with Michigan Works! and other community-based organizations focused on employment and related support services.

New Jersey Highlights

Higher Education Institutions (7): Drew University, Princeton University, and Rutgers University (Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden campuses); The College of New Jersey; Mercer County Community College, Essex County Community College, and Raritan Valley Community College. These institutions form the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP).

Prisons (6): Albert C Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, East Jersey State Prison, Northern State Prison.

Pilot Communities: Essex County (Newark), Camden County (Camden), Middlesex County (New Brunswick).

Eligibility: High school diploma or equivalency and adequate in-prison time remaining to complete a full

Key Program Components:

  • A statewide vision that every person in prison who qualifies for college will have the opportunity to earn college credits toward a degree while incarcerated and will obtain support for post-release continuation, with every prison connected to a community college and four-year college or university.
  • In-prison courses to match what students will need to matriculate in college degree programs.
  • Credits transferable throughout the prison system and consortium colleges in accordance with NJ Transfer and the Lampitt Law, which are agreements between all two-year community colleges that every course taken at one is transferable to any other in the state and two-year degrees are transferable in their entirety to four- year public colleges and universities.
  • Higher education institutions as primary employers of students (e.g. work-study, student employees in contracted services.).
  • Academic Counselors stationed at each correctional facility to provide guidance toward degree attainment.
  • Campus-based reentry counselors to assist with the college enrollment process and other services.
  • Course offerings leading to an Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Art’s degree.     Combined courses with people currently incarcerated and civilian students.
  • Student Advisory Boards comprised of NJ-STEP students at each facility.
  • Mandatory training for all instructional personnel led by the Student Advisory Boards inside the facilities.
  • Minimal disruptions of student academic participation through the use of academic holds.
  • Tutoring by NJ-STEP volunteers, community partners, and inside students.
  • Formerly incarcerated persons provide mentoring and lead pre-release workshops inside prison facilities and with incoming NJ-STEP students at college campuses.
  • A pre-release meeting and transition planning with an NJ-STEP Admissions Officer in order to continue college degree work upon release.
  • Post-release reentry services including financial literacy, workforce development, legal services, and individual/group counseling.
  • Case Planning – automated risk/needs/strengths assessment updated before release as part of a parole plan.
  • County-based reentry councils.

North Carolina Highlights

Higher Education Institutions (6): Asheville-Buncombe Technical, Stanly, Pamlico, Pitt, Mayland, and Central Piedmont.

Prisons (6): Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, Buncombe Correctional Center, Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution, Mountain View Correctional Institution, Albemarle Correctional Institution, and Pamlico Correctional Institution.

Pilot Communities: Greenville (Pitt County), Charlotte (Mecklenburg County), and Asheville (Buncombe County).

Eligibility: Individuals nearing two years of release from prison, intending to return to one of the pilot communities, and who have a high school diploma or equivalency.

Key Program Components:

  • A partnership with NC Department of Commerce, Division of Workforce Solutions, the Post Release Supervision and Parole Commission, and the North Carolina Community College System.
  • Shared housing within the same dormitory or wing of a dormitory for Pathways students.
  • Structured study hall time, tutoring and career advising services.
  • Courses leading to an Associate of Applied Science degree program, with the built-in opportunity to earn a certificate in computer information technology, business administration, entrepreneurship, or simulated gaming after 12 credit hours.
  • Access to computer labs with controlled wireless Internet access and other e-learning opportunities to facilitate academic learning.
  • Incentives provided for in-prison academic course progress, persistence and completion.
  • Success teams composed of a prison case manager, Local Reentry Council (LRC) staff, Department of Public Safety (DPS) staff including Rehabilitative Programs and Services and Community Supervision, a representative from the community college, and other volunteers. The Success team assists students throughout incarceration and reentry transition from prison to community by helping them develop a transition and educational plan, identify an appropriate academic path, monitor their progress, and provide any other necessary support.
  • Success Coaches – community college staff trained by the North Carolina Employment and Training (NC E&T) project in the areas of human resource development, continuing education, and student support services. The Success Coach meets Pathways student prior to release and serves as the student’s point of contact on the college campus, providing counseling, mentoring, and other services to facilitate retention, completion, and employment.
  • Pathways Navigators – a navigator serves as an advocate and mentor for Pathways participants and helps them connect with services that are available in the community and at the community college. Pathways Navigators are primarily formerly incarcerated individuals who have successfully attended college and transitioned back into the community.
  • Local Reentry Councils (LRC) in the pilot communities assist participants in finding solutions to barriers to persistence including job placement, housing, transportation, and child care. The LRCs foster relationships with partner organizations including local businesses, health providers, nonprofits, legal, educational and governmental agencies. The LRC is also responsible for raising awareness and advocating for offender/formerly incarcerated issues to the community and its leaders.

Featured Expert

Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections


Pathways advisory board member, Stanley Richards, recognized as a White House Champion of Change.
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