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University News | 01.30.23

Adler University receives federal grant to expand undergraduate program for incarcerated individuals

Adler University is expanding its online undergraduate program at Big Muddy River Correctional Center through new funding from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Dr. Dennis is sitting in front of a large window with a building blurred in the background. She is wearing a blouse and blazer.

Dr. Dennis

The $889,915 federal grant allows the program to grow up to 26 students over the next three years. The program, established in June 2021, currently gives 10 incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology.

“This is a population historically facing discrimination and other challenges, particularly when searching for employment once they’ve completed their sentences, when they need to be able to take care of themselves and their families, grow, and to contribute to society,” said Michelle Dennis, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Leadership and Applied Psychology with Adler University’s Online Campus and founder of the B.A. program.

“Through education, such as what we’re providing at Big Muddy River, we can continue to empower this group to really demonstrate their value to society,” said Dr. Dennis, an author of the grant. “We are thrilled we will be able to double this program over the next several years and are looking forward to continuing our work with the state to make this possible.”

The online undergraduate program, offered through the University’s Online Campus, provides incarcerated individuals at the medium-security adult male facility with higher-level courses needed to earn a bachelor’s degree. Eligible students must have an associate degree or 60 college credits.

The program’s 20 courses are all delivered online. Each course offers weekly synchronous sessions to promote engagement. In addition, the program includes a minimum of four face-to-face advising sessions. Faculty and advisors serving the program cover topics such as career goals with the students, emphasizing practical applications of content being covered in the degree program.

Infographic on higher education in prison data

By the Numbers: U.S. colleges and universities have partnered with prisons to provide educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals since the 19th century. Decades of research affirm the many ways that higher education in prison benefits individuals, communities, and society.

“It was exciting to hear about the possibility of expanding the psychology program here [at the center],” said Bryan Cross, educational facility administrator at Big Muddy River Correctional Center. “There have been several inquiries about the program from individuals in custody, and this will allow us to serve more of the population.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections had been very responsive to the idea of starting the online undergraduate program, according to Dr. Dennis, who founded the program in 2021.

“It took about another year of discussions and figuring out how it was going to work,” Dr. Dennis said. “In the end, I’m quite pleased with our collaboration.”

Before the launch of the program, individuals assigned to the correctional facility only had access to associate level credentials. Due to the remote location of the facility, opportunities to obtain bachelor’s degrees were scarce. Big Muddy River Correctional Center is located in Ina, Illinois, a rural village of about 2,300 people in Jefferson County, located about 300 miles south of Chicago.

Today, graduates of the program are poised to enter a wide variety of careers that draw on the broad interpersonal skills, cultural and psychological knowledge, and socially responsible attitudes developed in the program.

Career opportunities for graduates include community outreach worker, homeless program outreach counselor, behavioral health specialist, psychiatric technician, addictions counselor, social services case manager, mental health crisis worker, public health educator, among others.

These opportunities can ultimately lead to reduced recidivism rates in Illinois. A 2018 study funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance found that incarcerated individuals participating in higher education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates those who did not participate in correctional education programs.

“I believe this program will serve the students well as they re-enter society,” Cross said. “Any additional education, especially at the college level, will help make for a successful transition by providing them with more opportunities.”

One of the current students, in a letter to Adler President Raymond Crossman, Ph.D., expressed his appreciation that the program at Big Muddy River was created.

“I’m extremely excited because this is the first time in years of incarceration that a bachelor’s degree has even been available in prison so that finally I’m able to use my near limitless time in prison to earn something useful and meaningful — a B.A. degree!” the student wrote.

In her online meetings with the students, Dr. Dennis said that what she’s found is a group of strong individuals who continue to produce quality work in their courses.

“They’re putting in the time to understand their courses and discuss issues in a passionate way,” she said. “I’ve been impressed by their maturity and level of investment on the program. And when these students use the knowledge and experience they’ve gained while incarcerated to improve their lives and further their careers, I would consider that a great success.”

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