Moving on up: Carmelo Ortiz (left) and Justin Roslonek started taking college courses through Rutgers while serving long prison sentences. Now they’re on track to graduate with honors. Credit: John O’Boyle

Colleges and universities around the U.S. are facing a profound enrollment crisis. The number of students entering American institutions of higher education has dropped for seven straight years, as the vast Millennial generation ages out of prime college-going years and older students who flooded into colleges after the recession have found jobs. Since last spring alone, enrollment in postsecondary programs decreased by about 230,000 students.

Declines have been steepest in the Northeast and Midwest, where the overall population is stagnant or shrinking—and where, ironically, a disproportionate number of colleges and universities are located. An even bigger drop-off is likely to hit a decade from now, thanks to falling birth rates since the 2008 financial crisis, according to demographers. Declining enrollment has already led a number of for-profit colleges and a few small liberal arts schools to close or merge. It has put other schools under serious financial pressure, especially less-selective institutions like community colleges and regional state universities, which typically serve students from their surrounding communities rather than recruiting them—as elite schools do—from across the country.

Check out the complete 2018 Washington Monthly rankings here. 

But for all the fiscal pain, falling enrollment has an upside: it has led many schools to change their behavior in socially beneficial ways. To boost admissions, for instance, colleges are increasingly cutting tuition prices and recruiting among groups they generally used to ignore, including minorities, adults, and first-generation students. Some institutions are also doing more to help such students, who are often underprepared academically and in danger of dropping out. This requires higher up-front expenditures for things like college counselors but results in more tuition revenue for the universities as students stay in school longer. (See Kevin Carey, “Why More Colleges Should Treat Students Like Numbers.”)

In such an environment, it’s probably only a matter of time before schools start actively recruiting students like Justin Roslonek. A senior at Rutgers University–Newark, Roslonek lives in an apartment near campus. On many Sundays, you can find him at Our Lady of Czestochowa, a cocoa-colored brick Catholic church in Harrison, where he hangs out with his grandmother. He loves the traditional Polish food he grew up eating, but can’t hide his affinity for greasy Chinese American fare. A marketing major in the business school with a GPA just shy of 3.9, he is due to graduate this December.

One day, a study partner asked Roslonek for his cell phone number. But having been incarcerated, and while living in a halfway house, he wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone. So Roslonek had to say no. “I saw the puzzled look, the disappointment,” Roslonek recalls. “People’s dogs have phones. How do I not have a phone?”

He also spent more than a decade and a half behind bars for attempted homicide in a robbery-related incident committed when he was sixteen years old.

Former prisoners aren’t much of a presence on most American college campuses. But fifty-four of them are currently enrolled at Rutgers-Newark and its sister campuses in Camden and New Brunswick. Another sixty have already graduated with bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers, and eight have earned master’s degrees.

What brought them to Rutgers was an innovative program called the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), a partnership between the state’s department of corrections and several two- and four-year colleges in the state. Under NJ-STEP, inmates can take college classes while in prison (more than 500 are currently doing so) and, when they leave, have their credits transfer smoothly to participating colleges—something that happens too seldom in other prison education programs.

Helping current and former incarcerated people attend college offers many obvious social advantages—studies show, for instance, that prisoners who take classes while behind bars have considerably lower recidivism rates than those who do not. But for hard-pressed colleges and universities, the potential advantages are also monetary. Roslonek and all the other formerly incarcerated students attending Rutgers pay an average of $15,000 in annual tuition and fees, just like other in-state students—typically a combination of Pell Grants, student loans, work-study dollars, and whatever other money they and their families can cobble together. That works out to about $1 million in annual revenue for the university, according to Dr. Todd Clear, a professor of criminal justice and former administrator at Rutgers-Newark, and one of the founders of the NJ-STEP program. The NJ-STEP students require more services, including dedicated counselors, than other students. But that’s true of many of the nontraditional students that Rutgers-Newark and other colleges are increasingly recruiting. All costs considered, formerly incarcerated students are a net revenue raiser for the university, Clear believes, though an evaluation of the program’s finances is just getting under way.

If Clear turns out to be right, it could be a timely development, because the decline in college enrollment is happening just as the country is witnessing the beginnings of another major trend: the de-incarceration of America’s swollen prison system. The United States has roughly a million and a half men and women serving prison sentences, far more as a percentage of the population than any country other than the tiny nation of the Seychelles. Disgust over this reality, at a time when crime rates have been falling, has led to calls from both liberals and conservatives to radically reduce incarceration rates. That is (slowly) happening: the total number of inmates in state and federal prisons has been shrinking slightly for eight years in a row, with about 600,000 released annually. With so many people locked up, that number will likely remain high for years, or even grow if criminal justice reform measures ever pass at the state and federal levels. If only a fraction of them are funneled into college—Clear estimates that around 10 percent of inmates are able to do college-level work—it could mean tens of thousands of lives transformed and hundreds of millions of extra dollars for hard-pressed colleges and universities.

Providing college classes and even degrees to prisoners is hardly a new idea. But the politics of the issue have long been toxic, with law-abiding voters wondering why criminals should be given free educations while they themselves are forced to tap their savings and take out loans to put their own children through college. By allowing prisoners to become paying students, the NJ-STEP program could point to a possible path through that political minefield.

Arguments that prisoners in America ought to have access to education go back to before the founding of the country. But programs to deliver that education only started growing in earnest after a 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act made inmates eligible for Pell Grants. During the tough-on-crime 1980s and early ’90s, a number of congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats started arguing against Pells for prisoners, on the grounds that the grants were ineffective and unfair to law-abiding students and their families. Pell eligibility for inmates was eliminated in the 1994 crime bill signed by Bill Clinton. After that, the number of postsecondary prison education programs plummeted, from several hundred to about a dozen.

In recent years, new research has reaffirmed the wisdom of prison education programs—a 2014 RAND Corporation study found that every dollar invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 of taxpayer savings in reduced incarceration costs. In 2015, President Obama created, by executive action, the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which gives Pell Grants to students in both state and federal prisons and involves sixty-five colleges spread out across the twenty-seven states that participate.

Rutgers University–Newark is one of the participating colleges. It, in turn, primarily oversees the NJ-STEP program, which involves a coalition of four colleges and universities—Rutgers, Drew University, Princeton University, and Raritan Valley Community College—whose faculty teach inmates in seven of the state’s prisons. NJ-STEP staff recruit potential students and help them register, choose classes, and navigate financial aid and other paperwork. Importantly, credits from any of the prison-taught courses automatically transfer to any of the participating community colleges once the inmates are out of prison. After that, students with enough credits can transfer those community college credentials to a four-year school like Rutgers. In this way, NJ-STEP helps solve one of the abiding flaws of prison college programs nationwide—that ex-offenders often find that colleges won’t accept the credits they earned behind bars.

The move from prison to campus life can be a difficult one. To ease the transition, formerly incarcerated students who arrive at Rutgers receive support and social services through a program called Mountainview Communities. MVC counselors—many of whom are themselves former prisoners—help with things like campus networking, housing, financial management, legal issues, and job hunting. MVC also provides a dedicated physical space for formerly incarcerated students to gather, work, and lend support to each other.

When he first got to Rutgers, Ortiz was close to living in a homeless shelter. “Sometimes I felt like I was worse off than when I was locked up,” he recalled. Counselors found him permanent housing and helped him get an ID card—a seemingly small thing, but not easy to procure if you’ve been behind bars for three decades.

One student who benefited from Mountainview services is Carmelo Ortiz. A soft-spoken man who spends a lot of time with his fellow church parishioners and his girlfriend, Ortiz did thirty years on felony murder charges in a robbery that went wrong. He was the getaway driver, but he wound up getting the same amount of prison time as the actual shooter.

When he first got to Rutgers, Ortiz was close to living in a homeless shelter. “Sometimes I felt like I was worse off than when I was locked up,” he recalled. Mountainview counselors found him permanent housing, helped him get an ID card—a seemingly small thing, but not easy to procure if you’ve been behind bars for three decades—and guided him in other ways. “This program was instrumental in keeping me focused. It helped me navigate a lot of challenges, and I always turn to them for guidance and help,” Ortiz said. Now, Ortiz is part of an honors program for high-achieving and socially conscious students at Rutgers, to which MVC connected him. He also works as a research assistant, and is finishing up a project focused on prison record expungement, which he’ll present at a conference. He’s made the dean’s list for the past two semesters, won a competitive Braven Fellowship to develop his leadership skills, and is slated to graduate next spring.

Even with help from dedicated counselors, however, formerly incarcerated students on campus face hurdles most normal students can barely fathom. Justin Roslonek once had an accounting class that was entirely online. To a typical college student, that might sound like a godsend, but to Roslonek, it was the start of an excruciating semester. As a condition of his parole, the halfway house he was living in didn’t have internet access, which meant that all research for class assignments had to be shoved into small pockets of time in between classes, labs, meetings with professors, travel between locations, and check-ins with parole officers. “It chips off your time left and right, until you’re left with crumbs,” Roslonek said.

And students like Roslonek can’t just come early or stay late and finish work in college computer labs or public libraries: they have strict curfews that, if violated, could land them back in prison. And if students have children or families to attend to as well? They’ll have to fit that in too. “[Classes like that] destroyed me,” Roslonek said.

The social and emotional aspects aren’t much easier to adjust to. The smallest things can morph into situations that cause dread and embarrassment for recently released students. Roslonek recounted a time when he was a part of a study group for a Rutgers statistical methods course. The group of four or five students had already been meeting up for weeks on campus when one day one of them asked Roslonek for his cell phone number. But having been incarcerated, and while living in a halfway house, he wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone. So Roslonek had to say no. “I saw the puzzled look, the disappointment—that I wouldn’t even share my cell number with him, after all the weeks we’d been studying together. I saw this look on his face. It just doesn’t compute. People’s dogs have phones. How do I not have a phone?”

When students reveal their criminal history, said Roslonek, it’s a kind of “coming out”; they have to make tough choices about whether they’re going to disclose personal information, and they harbor fears about what will happen if they do. In Roslonek’s case, he wound up just telling the truth about why he couldn’t give his study partner his number: “I had to think pretty quickly. My assessment was that he was a genuinely nice kid. Who in the world knows what a halfway house is if they’re quote ‘normal people’ in society? They don’t know what the requirements or the restrictions of a halfway house are.” Then he pulled out his halfway house ID card for the other student to see, in what turned out to be a polite but awkward show-and-tell.

Ex-offenders at Rutgers are meeting the university’s admissions criteria and bringing their own tuition dollars with them. “They are not taking away opportunities for other students,” notes Danette Howard of the Lumina Foundation. That fact could help overcome the tough politics that typically surrounds efforts to expand higher education opportunities for incarcerated people.

Despite difficulties like these, NJ-STEP students graduate at the same rates as other Rutgers students, and many have gone on to accomplish amazing things. Walter Fortson, who spent two years in prison for selling crack cocaine, graduated from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and went on to win a prestigious Truman Scholarship and earn a master’s degree from Cambridge University. Benjamin Chin, who did time in a youth correctional facility on an assault conviction before graduating from Rutgers–New Brunswick in 2014, also became a Truman Scholar and is now doing policy development at the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation. Two other students spent the summer in the Czech Republic conducting molecular biophysics research through Princeton. Others are eyeing careers as social workers or considering entering PhD programs.

Todd Clear, the Rutgers-Newark professor who oversees NJ-STEP, is not only proud of his students’ accomplishments, he’s also convinced that there is a clear economic (and ethical) incentive for colleges of all types to do what New Jersey has done. “Every single state could do this,” he insisted. Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at the Lumina Foundation, who is studying prison education programs around the country, agreed: “This could be a way for colleges to bring in a new and different form of revenue.” She added that because NJ-STEP students are meeting Rutgers’s admissions criteria and bringing their own tuition dollars with them, “they are not taking away opportunities for other students.” Therefore, she said, the program could be a model that helps overcome the tough politics that typically surrounds efforts to expand higher education opportunities for incarcerated people.

The economics of the program, however, only work because students in NJ-STEP are able to access Pell Grants while they’re behind bars, thanks to Rutgers’s participation in the Second Chance Pell pilot program launched by Obama. So the big question is: What will happen to that program? Technically, funding for it runs out at the end of the year. But the Trump administration has signaled that it would like to see that funding continue. Key Senate Republicans have even voiced support for completely overturning the provision in the 1994 crime bill that blocked inmates from gaining access to Pell Grants.

This is, however, highly unlikely to happen in 2018, given that reauthorization of the main legislation guiding federal higher education policy has stalled (see Jared Bass and Clare McCann, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Higher Education Policy.”). Regulations will also be needed to make sure that unscrupulous for-profit schools don’t exploit the prison Pell dollars without delivering quality outcomes. Scams like these were common three decades ago and were cited by lawmakers who supported the anti-Pell provisions in the 1994 crime bill.

But if the flow of Pell dollars for prison education does eventually open up, it could be a real boost to colleges and universities struggling with their bottom lines—and a game changer for incarcerated people hoping to make the most of their lives on the outside.

Mel Jones

Mel Jones, a former Washington Monthly editorial intern, is a writer based in Washington, D.C.