Rutgers is expanding its program that helps transform lives by giving former prisoners a chance to earn a college degree.
Since its inception in 2005, the Mountainview program has enrolled 100 former inmates at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. They have graduated at a rate of 73.3 percent – slightly below the university’s six-year graduation rate of 77 percent for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees. The program’s graduates have an overall 3.1 grade point average, with one former inmate having attained a perfect 4.0.
Twenty-five have earned bachelor’s degrees, five have earned master’s degrees and 49 remain active students.After monitoring Mountainview’s success in New Brunswick, Rutgers University–Newark enrolled 10 former inmates in the program beginning this fall.
“The students in Mountanview have gone on to win national awards, receive recognition for their academic work and enroll in some of the best graduate programs in the world,” said Todd Clear, professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Newark who led the effort to secure the program’s funding. “We are proud to have students of that caliber.”
Rutgers University–Camden participated in a small-scale pilot of the Mountainview program in fall 2013. University and program leaders are considering expansion of Mountainview in Camden next year.
Mountainview was started by former Rutgers history professor Donald Roden as a pilot program in 2005, when the state’s prison system was offering courses through individual arrangements with several New Jersey colleges and universities.
Motivated by studies reporting that higher education is the most effective way to reduce prisoners’ recividism rates, the participating schools established the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison Consortium (NJ-STEP) in 2012, creating a framework for managing the process of providing college-level courses to prisoners more consistently.
Only 5.3 percent of students admitted through Mountainview subsequently have been convicted again – and have left Rutgers – compared to an average of 53 percent among all offenders leaving state correctional facilities.
NJ-STEP, housed at Rutgers–Newark, works with New Jersey’s Department of Corrections and the State Parole Board to administer the coursework and to assist the former inmates as they transition to college life. In addition, each consortium member works with prisons directly to coordinate course schedules and teacher selection.
Student tuition and operational costs associated with the program at each school are paid by NJ-STEP funders, including the Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Sunshine Lady Foundation
Mountainview encourages and facilitates the Rutgers enrollment of former inmates motivated to continue their education, have completed 15-20 community college credits and earned a high school diploma or GED while incarcerated and have demonstrated that their pre-incarceration attitudes have changed.
"We look for persistence and consistency when we review applicants," says program director Chris Agans. "We're interested in who was conscientious, who showed up to appointments and workshops while incarcerated. We also want to learn what they've done to mitigate the behavior responsible for their felonies."
Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, New Jersey, was the first prison to join with Rutgers to help educate former prisoners. Hence the name of the program, which now draws students from a number of the state’s other correctional facilities.
Former inmates who apply to Rutgers are interviewed in person and undergo thorough review. A university judicial review panel discusses the nature of their felonies and the admissions office reviews their academic achievements while in prison. If admitted, they are placed in the student year determined by level of education, which reflects any transferable college credits earned while incarcerated.
Most of the former inmates have embraced the chance Mountainview has afforded them. All who’ve earned degrees are working at least part time, while 80 percent are working or attending graduate school full time. Many have earned merit scholarships and scholarships and two became the first Rutgers recipients of Harry S. Truman student scholarships in 12 years.
"Our graduates say, 'Going to college didn't teach me what to think,'" says Agans. "'It changed the way I think of the world around me. Because of that change, I will never go back to prison.'"