What’s the Value of a College Education

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This is a shockingly uninformed statement from someone who heads up a foundation involved in criminal justice policy work. It’s so flawed, I hesitate to give it more eyeballs but also feel it deserves a response for the public record.

Let’s start with this basic fallacy that restoring Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison is bad policy because money is better spent on other prison priorities such as guards. Pell Grants are for college students, period.

Pell Restoration for incarcerated students doesn’t take money from prison budgets or preclude their expansion. That money could never be spent on anything but college.

When the 1994 Crime Bill made people in prison ineligible for Pell, proponents lied and framed it as zero sum game as if money for incarcerated students was taking money away from other students. But Pell is basically an entitlement program.

Anyone at the income qualification threshold is eligible for a Pell Grant. A slice for me doesn’t make your slice smaller. It’s not pie.

Arnold’s zero sum argument is even more insidious because it would have you believe that there is some sort of choice between Pell Grants for incarcerated students and funding for other things in the prison when these two funding streams/budgets have nothing to do with each other.

The funding argument is absurd on its face with just a passing understanding of how funding and budgets work. But that’s not what irks me most.

Most irksome is the idea that the value of college needs to be studied, proven, verified, justified. In what other context are we confused about the value of a college education? Are there randomized controlled trials that prove that Vanderbilt, where Arnold went to college “works”?

When I was a Bard student, I helped launch Bard Prison Initiative in part because I was acutely aware of how the world was opening up to me through education in ways not possible for the many people I grew up with who never had the opportunity to go to college.

This is not news. Talk to any first generation student.

All throughout history we have seen groups of Americans especially from marginalized communities making education central to goals of community/personal advancement, upward mobility, family security, intellectual growth. Who is confused about this or the value for their own kids?

This confusion is only possible if we imagine people in prison as being different from anyone else seeking an education. As if the mission of college in prison is to “treat” criminality or fix broken people rather than education doing what it has done for countless students across time.

This thread assumes people in prison are separate “others.” Ironically, the same studies Arnold bashes *are* deeply flawed in part for exactly this reason.

These studies ask what “dosage” of education “works”? They, like Arnold, imagine the value of college in prison being somehow different from the value of college period for anyone and especially for other first generation students.

To be sure, the Rand study and many others that come from a criminal justice perspective are problematic on many levels and recidivism is a terrible and pessimistic metric for college success.

If you want a better model for research, I would point to wrk by The Institute for Higher Education Policy or Erin Castro’s research from the University of Utah Prison Education Project. Both are rooted in the field of higher education and evaluate the strength of a college in prison program based on higher education metrics. Support their work.

They don’t assume the value of an education is an open question for “other people.”

The reason there aren’t more randomized controlled trials in the field of college in prison is not because it’s too hard. It’s because that would require a perm restriction from college for a control group of PEOPLE who otherwise would have gotten into college.

I join the many educators who find that prospect deeply immoral and totally unnecessary.

I am grateful for my own Bard education in part because it gave me the same critical thinking skills on display in the film College Behind Bars to know a poorly considered argument when I see one.

Originally posted on Twitter. Re-posted with permission.


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Historian of Carceral State. Director of National Engagement, BPI Bard. Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. Alumna of Bard College and the University of Chicago.

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