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University News | 05.07.21

Adler University to Launch Higher Education in Prison Pilot Program

Adler University’s Online Campus will be launching a pilot program to increase access to higher education for individuals who are incarcerated.

The pilot program is expected to launch in June 2021 through a partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections. An 8-week online course in applied psychology will be offered to up to 10 students at Big Muddy River Correctional Center who will work from provided laptops to access instruction and materials. The course will include recorded instruction, virtual and in-person advising, live sessions with the instructor and students, and individual and group-based assignments.

“We want to support, advise, and empower the students to achieve their goals,” said Michelle Dennis, Ph.D., Interim Executive Dean for the Online Campus. “One of the major reasons that recidivism rates are so high is because individuals who are released into the community can often feel like they have a cloud hanging over their head, thinking everyone is expecting bad things from them. We want the students to be released with their heads held high.”

Donna DiMatteo-Gibson, Ph.D., Director of the Online Campus Industrial and Organizational Psychology program, will teach the course. Elena Quintana, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice, will provide in-person assistance and support.

“Having Dr. Quintana there is important to the student experience,” Dr. Dennis said. “I think it will improve learning outcomes, and it’s very consistent with the Institute’s mission to create communities where all people can reach their full potential.”

After the pilot course concludes, the Online Campus will assess student feedback and outcomes and work to launch a degree program in spring 2022. The program would provide individuals who are incarcerated and have an associate degree or 60 college credits with the higher-level courses needed to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Applied Psychology. Students would take two courses a term during the full program, with all the same elements as the pilot course.

Dr. Dennis’ long-term goal is to create a bachelor’s degree program that enrolls both incarcerated students and students from the broader community.

“It’s necessary, inclusive, and extremely beneficial to have all students together,” Dr. Dennis said. “These students would be able to go in and interact on equal footing, learning from each other. The nuances of the experience of students who are incarcerated really would help the students who are in the community to grow and change. The students who are incarcerated would also learn from the community-based students because they would feel empowered, find connections, and be able to visualize success.”

The online program offers an important education opportunity as the COVID-19 pandemic has halted most in-person higher education in prison programs. Even before the pandemic, there were many barriers to accessing higher education, whether or not a student was incarcerated.

“There are so many barriers that this program could help remove, which would help increase the rates of degree completion within correctional institutions,” Dr. Dennis said. “Once fully implemented, it would also help set the standard that we have to integrate students in the community with students who are incarcerated to create connections, build networks, and empower the students who are incarcerated. This is how we can reduce recidivism.”

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