"We believe in the possibilities of postsecondary education—for everyone. That's why we're thrilled to fund this project, which is our first grant in the higher education in prison space. We hope supporting this work will help more students from underserved groups realize their potential."
- Amy Kerwin, Vice President – Education Philanthropy, Ascendium Education Group


In 2016 we commissioned the RAND Corporation to conduct a landscape scan of major trends in higher education in prison. We learned about opportunities for investment in the field, and RAND identified the Minnesota Correctional Education Center (MCEC) within the Minnesota Department of Corrections as a promising program ready for expansion.

MCEC's mission is to provide educational opportunities that lead to successful outcomes for justice-involved individuals after release. The program includes 17 career and technical programs as well as instruction in workplace relationship skills. While mapping out career pathways, MCEC identified clear needs for more advising staff and expanded training to better align with labor market demand.

Advising staff is needed to ensure students make the most of the educational options available to them. Supporting students by guiding them through career pathways and connecting them with employment opportunities could also help improve re-entry outcomes.

In Minnesota, certified heavy equipment operators and forklift drivers with full OSHA 10 safety training are in high demand for infrastructure projects. The state is projecting vacancies in over 10,000 positions within the next five years. Providing students in prison with the opportunity to train for these positions would prepare them for available jobs with livable wages upon release.


Given challenging state budgets, public funding is not adequate to support expansion of higher education programs in prison. To that end, we made a grant of nearly $2 million to MCEC. Funds will cover the costs of instructors and simulation equipment over a three-year period that will allow nearly 2,100 students access to courses that lead to credentials in heavy equipment and forklift operations and OSHA 10 safety certifications. This grant is also funding four career navigators, who help students connect with employers, create resumes, prepare for interviews and secure employment. As of Fall 2019, more than 200 students have completed certificates and are working with career navigators to get the most from their new credentials post-release.

To gauge the impact of this project, we committed $500,000 to the RAND Corporation to conduct an evaluation. RAND will analyze completion data, track post-release employment and determine whether advising and coaching provided by career navigators makes a difference when it comes to employment outcomes. By funding this project and sharing what we learn, we hope to demonstrate the benefits of education in prison and ultimately expand opportunities for incarcerated students.


Contact Senior Program Officer Toya Wall at twall@ascendiumeducation.org.