We Go Where They Need Us to Be: The Power of Community Colleges to Support Learners in Reentry

Published apr. 25, 2022

Diane Good-Collins, the director of the reentry program at Nebraska’s Metropolitan Community College (MCC), knows first-hand the profound impact community colleges can have on adult learners, and on people with criminal records in particular. She took her first college class in the early 2000s as an incarcerated student at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, the only women’s prison in the state.

After her release, Good-Collins continued her studies at MCC and secured a job working for the dean responsible for correctional education. She advocated for MCC to play a more active role in providing reentry services to support people who were transitioning back to the community after incarceration and who wanted to complete college.

“I was thinking about how we could connect our students and others upon release to opportunities and felt that it is our duty to do that as people made their way home,” she says. “Little did I know I was creating a job I’d eventually take on.”

Good-Collins’ advocacy and leadership led to the development of MCC’s 180 Reentry Assistance Program (180 RAP), a comprehensive program that educates people in prison and supports students transitioning to MCC after incarceration. Now in its seventh year, 180 RAP has grown to provide instruction inside nine Nebraska correctional institutions, including a women's facility and a youth facility. As Good-Collins says, “This [college-in-prison program] is just an extension of who we serve.”

Community colleges, with their mission and track record of serving adult learners, can play a key role in helping people with records achieve their educational goals. People who participate in college-in-prison programs are far more likely to find stable, family-supporting employment after their release and far less likely to return to prison. The July 2023 restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for people currently incarcerated presents a unique moment in time to strengthen and support quality in postsecondary programs in preparation for the tens of thousands of new students eager to enroll.

Now, community colleges should embrace postsecondary education in corrections and reentry programs as a core part of their mission.

Now is the time for community colleges to build on their core strengths to support all learners—no matter where they begin their journey—on a pathway to education, career, and economic success.

Initiatives like Ascendium Education Group’s Ready for Pell initiative, which JFF manages, are engaging correctional and postsecondary education systems in learning about best practices to enroll and support incarcerated learners. Ready for Pell’s focus will be on aligning partners to provide services that place learners on a pathway from incarceration to education, careers, and equitable economic advancement.

Community colleges are well-positioned to help people with records advance economically for a number of reasons:

● They offer an array of programs aligned with the local labor market for those seeking employment, as well as transfer pathways for those seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree and beyond. Many also offer high school equivalency options.

● They have the geographical reach to physically meet learners where they are, whether they are still incarcerated or have recently returned to their communities, and increasingly offer online and hybrid options.

● They offer a wide array of supports, such as food pantries, mental health services, and connections to other community partners.

● They are affordable—and will be even more affordable once Pell Grant funding for people in prison has been fully restored.

The MCC 180 RAP program demonstrates what it looks like when colleges embrace serving learners with records as a core part of their student success agenda. At Good-Collins’s urging, her department began the work informally for several years before she approached the warden and the college president to have the program officially approved.

Today, with the supervision and support of MCC’s board of governors, 180 RAP provides students with course registration assistance, as well as financial aid and scholarship application support. Continuous coaching, tutoring, and mentoring are the anchors of the program, offering individualized and group support. Students in prison have case managers who help them continue their coursework if they move to a new facility; formerly incarcerated students have weekly peer support group meetings with 25 to 30 other students. Some members of the group were recently released, while others have been home for over a decade.

MCC also helps students with access to basic needs (such as the food pantry) and academic support. The college has eight campuses in total, but 180 RAP is headquartered at the main campus in Fort Omaha, so staff travel to meet any of their students who need their help and services.

“We go where they need us to be,” says Good-Collins.

The 180 RAP program provides instruction in pathways such as information technology, manufacturing trades, and college and career general education. The most popular certificate is the Diversified Manufacturing Career Certificate, accredited by the Manufacturing Skills Standard Council and converted from an online assessment to paper format to work in a correctional setting. With this accommodation, MCC’s incarcerated students are testing in the top 4th percentile in the nation.

Another popular pathway is the Google IT Tech Academy. The college received a Google Impact Challenge Grant to purchase ten laptops and develop a closed network system teaching incarcerated students IT certification classes in the Omaha Correctional Center. Other noncredit courses include certifications, such as forklift operation or Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, that can help secure employment.

The college now has over 200 employer partners in nearly every area of work welcoming formerly incarcerated jobseekers in the state.

Through 180 RAP, the college now has over 200 employer partners in nearly every area of work welcoming formerly incarcerated jobseekers in the state, and in various organizational levels, not just entry-level jobs. And the program continues to expand—they recently moved into a large building on campus with double the space.

Community colleges are the launchpad for equity for many Americans. They also have a unique opportunity to adopt this mindset for people with records. With the changing tide in financial aid policy, now is the time for community colleges to build on their core strengths to support all learners—no matter where they begin their journey—on a pathway to education, career, and economic success.

Learn more about the powerful role postsecondary institutions can play in corrections and reentry education at Horizons, JFF’s annual summit, which will take place June 7-8 in New Orleans.