UC Irvine’s LIFTED program offers B.A. degrees to students who are incarcerated

UC Irvine's LIFTEDWith the launch of the University of California Irvine’s LIFTED – Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees – program, California is further establishing itself as the nation’s leader in bringing public higher education to people in prison. And support among the state’s leaders is widespread.

“What we have now is the perfect planetary alignment in California,” says Shannon Swain, superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education, California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “We have a governor supportive of higher education, a legislature that is supportive and a secretary of corrections that is forward thinking and has really supported rehabilitation.”

With support and funding from the governor and legislature, UC Irvine has become the first school in the University of California system to offer a bachelor’s degree to individuals who are incarcerated. And it’s an important step for the state.

“It (UC Irvine’s LIFTED program) fulfills the mission of higher education in California – that anyone anywhere can access a UC education,” says Keramet Reiter, UCI professor and LIFFTED director. “The UCs are under constant pressure to expand and diversify. And this is a student body that’s incredibly diverse and very excited to become part of the UC community. It’s recognizing that if they meet the qualifications for admission, these are students that the state could and should be serving.”

The LIFTED program begins this fall with an expected 26 students who are incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. In order to be accepted into the program, potential students had to have completed an AA degree in sociology (with a 3.5 GPA) at Southwestern College, a community college in Chula Vista, Calif. Southwestern offers an associate degree program within the facility and has partnered with UC Irvine on the LIFTED program.

How UC Irvine’s LIFTED is funded

Although the program is now officially in operation, it was several years in the making. Two years ago, the Michelson 20MM Foundation provided a $25,000 seed grant for a group of formerly incarcerated grad students to help with the planning and get the program off of the ground. Google offered a matching grant that provides textbooks and supplies for the students.

In July, the university announced that the State of California is providing $1.8 million – five years of funding – for LIFTED. “It was in the governor’s final budget for this year and supports everything required to run the program,” says Reiter. It pays for the program coordinator, assists students with the purchase of books and reimburses faculty for travel costs to the prison, among other things.

“Two-thirds of this funding will support LIFTED, and one third will support LIFTED programs that will be launched at other UC campuses,” she says.

UC Irvine’s LIFTED program details

Currently students must major in sociology, but Reiter hopes that more majors will be added once LIFTED gets established.

Students take a variety of subjects in addition to sociology courses. “Deans from across the university, from 10 different schools, pledged two courses each. We put out a call to faculty. ‘These are the opportunities. Let us know if you’re interested,’” Reiter says.

And they are interested. “We have an advisory board of more than 50 people, and people are lined up and very excited to do this.”

For the first year, of the 12 classes in which students will be enrolled, nine will be offered by full faculty. Graduate students and lecturers will handle the other three classes.

Each faculty member will teach one three-hour seminar per week. For four days a week, students will participate in one of these seminars. The fifth day will be set aside for counseling, tutoring and guest speakers.

“We want these students to have as comparable as possible an experience to what they would have on campus,” says Reiter. “The plan is to have a range of options, and many of the courses are electives, and the professors are teaching these courses as part of their normal teaching load.”

How students pay tuition

PELL grants, when they become available to eligible students in college-in-prison programs beginning July 1, 2023, may cover tuition and expenses. What PELL doesn’t cover, the  University of California’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan will pick up. It will also, according to Reiter, cover students, like dreamers (undocumented young people), who aren’t eligible for PELL grants.

Other California campuses offering B.A. level college programs

UC Irvine is just the latest example of bringing an opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree to California’s prisons. The others are:

  • California State University, Los Angeles’s program at Lancaster State Prison and California Institution for Women.
  • California State University, Fresno, at Central California Women’s Facility and Valley State Prison (accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges on May 5, 2022).
  • California State University, Sacramento, at Folsom State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison.
  • Pitzer College at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

And there will be more to come. “By this time next year, if all goes as planned, we’ll have nine institutions where people can pursue a B.A.,” says Swain. In addition to UC Irvine and the colleges listed above, California State University, San Diego will launch a program at Centinella State Prison in Imperial County.

Studies show importance of higher education in prisons

The fact that programs like this are important has been proved by a variety of studies. A Rand Corporation study done in 2013 found that those participating in correctional education programs had a 43 percent less chance of recidivating than those who didn’t. They also had a 13 percent higher chance of finding employment following release.

Another study, “An Economic Analysis of Prison Education Programs and Recidivism,” was conducted by Robert Allen at Emory University’s department of economics in 2006. It found further proof that education can prevent recidivism. Only 13.7 percent of those incarcerated who earned an associate degree ended back in prison. And those earning bachelor’s degrees had even more impressive results – a recidivism rate of just 5.6 percent.

Higher education is a good investment.

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