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Summaries of RCT Grants

RCT of a correctional education program for prison inmates, aimed at increasing postsecondary enrollment and decreasing recidivism

This project is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education program, a prison-based correctional education program designed to increase inmates’ likelihood of attaining a postsecondary degree and reduce their likelihood of recidivating after their release.

Grant Recipient: RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization

Term: 2019 –2023

Principal Investigators: Lois Davis, Ph.D., RAND Corporation

Susan Turner, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine

Funding: $343,745

Summary: This project is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education program, a prison-based correctional education program designed to increase inmates’ likelihood of attaining a postsecondary degree and reduce their likelihood of recidivating after their release. The Pathways program partners with local colleges and universities to provide inmates with (i) in-prison postsecondary education at least two years prior to release, and (ii) two years of post-release support in entering college and completing their postsecondary education.

Pathways has not yet been rigorously evaluated, and though some evaluations of other correctional education programs for incarcerated adults have been conducted and found positive impacts, these studies have tended to have methodological weaknesses. In spite of this limited evidence base, federal policymakers have been increasingly interested in funding correctional education programs as evidenced by recent passage of the First Step Act of 2018 (which increases emphasis on providing education programs in prisons), and the fact that members of Congress are considering legislation to permanently reinstate prisoners’ access to Pell Grants. Since substantial federal funding may soon be dedicated to correctional education programs, rigorous evidence about which programs are effective (and which are not) is critical if this new funding is to be spent wisely.

Under this grant, the researchers will conduct a retrospective RCT, capitalizing on oversubscription to the Pathways program. From 2013 to 2017, the program used a randomized lottery to allocate a limited number of program slots, creating an opportunity to measure outcomes in an RCT evaluation design (i.e., comparing outcomes for lottery winners to those of lottery losers). The randomized sample comprised 426 prisoners in Michigan and North Carolina. Inmates were randomly assigned to either (i) a treatment group that received the Pathways program, or (ii) a control group that did not, but could participate in college correspondence courses and/or prison-based career and technical education programs. The study will measure the impact of the program on enrollment in a postsecondary institution and recidivism four years after random assignment (or approximately two years after prisoners’ scheduled release date). These outcomes will be measured using National Student Clearinghouse data and state arrest records. In addition, the researchers will also collect information to estimate the program cost.

The study’s pre-specified pre-analysis plan is linked here.

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