ASHLAND, Ohio — The campus of Ashland University is rather quiet and quaint, with only about 1,800 residential students. But the schools reach goes far beyond the outskirts of Northeast Ohio. It goes inside more than 100 correctional centers in 13 states.
“We’ve grown to be the nation’s largest program,” said Carlos Campo the president of Ashland University.
The correctional education program dates back to the 1960’s, but the program’s explosive growth started in 2015, when Ashland was chosen as one of the colleges to participate in the Second Chances Pell Program experiment.
Pell grants give federal aid to incarcerated students. Campo said after they were chosen to participate, the program turned to tablet-based.
“We just saw immediate growth because we used a technology partner,” said Campo. “We purchase the tablet for the inmate, they study online, most of them in associates degree, some of bachelors.”
Inmates can get degrees in various subjects. Richard Swiger graduated from the program as an inmate at Grafton Correctional Institute.
“If it wasn’t for Ashland University, if it wasn’t for the education I got from them, I very well may be doing more time, or spending the rest of my life in prison,” said Swiger.
8 months after his first stint of 5-and-a-half-years in an Ohio prison, Swiger found himself right back where he started.
“I was facing a life sentence for two aggravated burglaries, a kidnapping and a robbery,” he said. “I made some very foolish choices to try and support a drug habit.”
But he said he knew if he was going back behind bars, he had to make a change. Swiger said two things saved him: his relationship with Jesus and an education.
With just a G.E.D. he enrolled in Ashland’s business program.
“I would stay up until 2-3 a.m. in the morning in my cell studying,” he said. “I graduated with their two-year certificate in 2009 accruing almost 100 credits.”
After nine years at Grafton, he was released. Since then, he has created a life for himself in Medina with his wife and kids and is the head of Ohio’s Prison Fellowship.
“I came out with some education and some know how,” he said. “It equipped me, it changed the way that I think. It changed the way that I acted.”
Campo said that change in Swiger is what they’ve seen in countless other graduates. He said the program not only benefits the prisons and the inmates, but the counties that they live in when they’re released.
“They’ve added a credential and it says to an employer ‘well wait a minute,’ this isn’t just someone who you would see as a felon trying to get back on their feet, this is someone who is moving forward in their life,” Campo said.
According to the RAND Corporation, “inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs.”
And while a recent article by The Marshall Project criticized the quality of education that the inmates actually receive, Campo said the results speak for itself.
“It might not be perfect in every regard,” he said. “When you think about the high level of academic rigor that’s built into the program, what the students get out of it, we think it more than justifies the continued expansion of these types of programs.”
With Congress officially lifting the Pell Grant ban in December of 2020, Campo said he can see the correctional program eventually having nearly 10,000 students enrolled.