Six years ago, Ashland University, a small Christian college in the north-central region of Ohio known as the “Buckeye Bible Belt,” was in trouble. The school was $70 million in debt, was given a “junk” rating by the investors’ service Moody’s, and was later cited by state officials for transcript manipulation, records show.
But under Donald Trump’s Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, Ashland’s fortunes have turned around. After being selected to participate in a federal financial aid initiative for incarcerated people, the university’s correctional education program was able to spread to more than 100 prisons and jails in 13 states, from Louisiana to Minnesota. Since 2017, it has enrolled nearly as many new students behind bars as make up its entire undergraduate student body, bringing in almost $30 million over that time period, according to school records as well as data provided by an Education Department spokesman.
No other college has been allowed to use federal funding to expand so widely and rapidly in correctional facilities over the past four years, nine prison education experts said in interviews. Despite Ashland’s relative obscurity, the school now appears to have a bigger footprint in the nation’s penal system than any other institution of higher learning.
And yet, critics say that few colleges offer less to imprisoned students, often in return for using up their lifetime allotment of federal financial aid. Unlike most prison university programs, which provide at least some in-person classes—that is, when there’s no pandemic—the Ashland experience takes place almost entirely on a tablet. To complete coursework for an associate degree in General Studies, a bachelor’s degree in Applied Communications, or an Interdisciplinary Studies degree, the school’s 3,518 currently incarcerated students watch recorded lectures, absorb digital readings and type up papers alone.
Ashland, a private, nonprofit school, loads its content onto devices owned by private companies such as Texas-based Securus Technologies, which charges prisoners to send and receive emails, listen to music and play games through its JPay service.
Todd Marshall, Ashland’s vice president for correctional education and innovation, says the university’s tablet-based curriculum makes it possible to teach more people in prisons and jails than are served by traditional college programs, especially those in remote, under-funded areas where in-person offerings are minimal. “Our goal is for every incarcerated individual in America to be able to go to college,” he said, noting that education reduces the likelihood that people who have been locked up will commit future crimes and increases their chances of getting a job.
Marshall said the school’s longstanding commitment to educating prisoners, including its new model for doing so in a more scalable way, is rooted in Christian values of rehabilitation and integrity.
The Marshall Project asked to view Ashland’s coursework on one of the devices that prisoners use, but officials denied the request, saying the technology only works on prison grounds.
Students correspond with professors they have never met through a messaging tool that must be plugged into a kiosk at their prison; these often break down, according to interviews with six incarcerated students. The university employs only one digital librarian for prisoners nationwide, and only one staffer who manages their career plans and return to society.
It’s just not possible for incarcerated people, a population with considerable social needs, to get adequate support taking college courses largely by themselves on a small device, critics say. “It’s hard for those of us in higher education to even articulate how nonsensical that is,” said Rob Scott, executive director of the prison education program at Cornell University, which teaches in-person liberal arts courses in upstate New York prisons.
Ashland’s expansion is an “inflection point” for the future of education for incarcerated people, said Ann Jacobs, executive director of the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity in New York City. “We are challenged to answer the question,” she said, “of whether a substandard educational experience is better than none, or good enough, for ‘those people.’”
Marshall, the Ashland official, says there are misconceptions about tablet-based learning. “It’s not like we just dump stuff on there,” he said. Students have “substantive, regular conversation” with professors via the app and receive feedback on the assignments they submit, he said. They are given a keyboard and earbuds, he added, and any technological problems are fixed quickly by the site directors that the school assigns to each prison.
Some facilities create an “AU dorm” with access to tutors, he said.
Ben Castro, a formerly incarcerated Ashland graduate, said there were study halls at his Louisiana prison thanks to the school’s site director. Castro said he owes the well-paying job he now has as vice president of operations for a small grocery store chain to the fact that Ashland gave him an associate degree while he was behind bars in 2018.
“It totally changed my life,” he said.
When asked for data showing Ashland’s success with all of its incarcerated students, though, Marshall said the tablet program has only operated for four years, making it too early to assess graduation or drop-out rates, and that a project to improve the school’s metrics is still a few months from completion.
In 2018, a college accrediting commission found that Ashland had not set goals for its students in prison to complete the program, and had no systematic process for reviewing student complaints.
Ashland claims that it is the oldest continually operating college behind bars in the U.S.; it first started teaching in one Ohio prison in 1964. But until 2016, its correctional education program existed only in that state.
Ashland’s nationwide expansion was sparked near the end of the second Obama administration, when the Department of Education launched a pilot program called Second Chance Pell with the goal of reinstating federal financial aid for prisoners who seek a college education. Pell grants for incarcerated people had been banned by the 1994 Crime Bill authored by Joe Biden.
For universities, gaining funding through Second Chance—roughly $6,000 per student—has required a rigorous approval process for every prison system they want to operate in. In the most recent round of applications, 67 colleges were picked out of more than 180 that expressed interest.
College administrators say the selection process under the Trump administration has been opaque, but that Ashland has been a clear winner. It’s been the only school allowed to keep expanding to new states across the country, according to experts interviewed by The Marshall Project.
The Department of Education granted Ashland a waiver allowing it to expand, according to department spokeswoman Angela Morabito, who said the decision was made by career civil servants not by senior leaders appointed by Trump. She also said that any school receiving these federal funds must have “regular and meaningful interaction” with incarcerated students, which she said is possible through an internet connection.
An August report published by the department states that one unnamed college has expanded to multiple states. Morabito did not respond by publication time to a question asking whether this one school is Ashland.
Higher education experts see the Trump administration’s open-ended support for an obscure Ohio college’s tablet program as consistent with DeVos’s philosophy of promoting private religious and charter schools rather than public schools with proven track records. This has included those that operate like a business: spreading their product using students’ own money. (In 2019, DeVos repealed an Obama rule that had reined in for-profit colleges whose graduates leave school without a real chance of getting a job and with more student debt than they can ever repay.)
Marshall, the head of Ashland’s prison program, said that Dr. Carlos Campo, the university’s president, has an excellent working relationship with DeVos and other top education officials. And he noted that some of the school’s imprisoned students receive limited scholarship money, in addition to federal dollars. Ashland does not make any money from corrections departments or from private prison telecommunications companies, he said.
Ashland’s program is, in turn, appealing to prison administrators in part because they don’t have to pay anything extra for it, given that it is funded nearly entirely by prisoners’ Pell dollars and can come with the JPay tablets.
Other universities build more complete college experiences for incarcerated students through scholarships and grants, as well as some state funding.
Meanwhile, for Ashland’s virtual program, corrections officials don’t have to process security clearances for visiting professors, assign officers to guard classrooms, or buy additional educational materials.
Ashland is less adversarial than other higher education initiatives, which tend to advocate for prisoners to have a culture of intellectual exploration and empowerment. That dynamic often causes direct conflict with corrections departments’ culture of control.
The school “requires none of the ‘messiness’ of collaboration—bodies and texts moving within and through the prison walls,” one college administrator wrote in an open letter to Ashland that he posted on a higher education listserv in early December. Instead, corrections departments get a “seamless” process for providing educational content, he said. Yet “messiness is an essential part of any college education worthy of the name, and seams (if not outright resistance) are exactly what we should be causing in the prisons.”
Marshall said of Ashland’s relationships with prison agencies, “We’re guests in their house.”
Those with experience with Ashland also complained about its approach to preparing prisoners for reentry into society, which most prison university programs consider to be a major aspect of what they provide. After being released from prison, most students can only afford to continue their education with the college if they remain eligible for Pell money, which many have already spent on the program.
Luci Harrell, a formerly incarcerated person in Georgia—where Ashland operates in private prisons—who now works as a reentry group-facilitator at a halfway house, says she has been appalled by what’s happened to the Ashland students who arrive from prison at her facility. All of the women she works with, she says, lose the credits they started when they were locked up, and, without access to the tablet program anymore, have little way to keep working toward their degree.
It’s “quite the insult” from a college that has been given unique access to use JPay tablets in the state’s correctional facilities, Harrell said. “Ashland shows that it cares more about getting federal Pell dollars than actually educating people, advocating for the completion of courses, or helping its students with reentry needs,” she said, and “is doing more harm than good.”
But she also noted that she doesn’t want to “beat up on those implementing new ways of providing educational access, in any capacity.” For many behind bars, online learning is the only method available, Harrell says.
This fall, even New York’s state prison system, with its established network of relatively well-funded, well-connected college programs including Cornell, the Bard Prison Initiative and Hudson Link, signed up with Ashland. The college will be piloting its tablet content in four of the state’s prisons next year, though there is no written agreement yet, according to officials at the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
The state’s existing prison education programs wrote letters of complaint, questioning how an evangelical, mostly White school in the Midwest could be adequately responsive to the diverse population behind bars in New York.
“For incarcerated people who’ve had adverse relationships with authority, and with the education system, and with technology,” learning from afar “is the opposite of how to help them build a more trusting relationship with the world and to see more potential in themselves,” said Jessica Jensen, director of statewide educational initiatives for John Jay’s Institute for Justice and Opportunity.
During the pandemic, many prison college programs are temporarily using Zoom and other online platforms, but plan to resume in-person classes as soon as possible. DOCCS officials said that Ashland will be a complement to these schools; it won’t replace them.
Officials also said that fewer than 10 percent of prisoners in the state who have a high school degree are enrolled in any college program, which means there is a clear need for more educational opportunities, even by tablet.
But Rowland Davis, a formerly incarcerated person released this October in New York and pursuing a degree in education from The City College of New York, says there is no comparison between in-person learning and tablet learning, both of which he experienced behind bars. “What I loved and grew from was hearing my peers explain how they arrived at a thought,” he said. “And I know that almost all people who’ve been in prison would agree with me.”
Other currently and formerly incarcerated students said they didn’t grow up with technology; they do not feel engaged on tablets or feel accountability while being taught remotely, they said.
A better approach to expanding college to more students who are locked up, many experts say, would be to provide funding for the community colleges that are near even the most remote prisons nationwide.
Part of the richness of higher education programs, college-in-prison advocates say, is ultimately that they are grounded in debate, dialogue, critical thinking and the arts—rather than digital educational “content” produced in partnership with private corrections companies, like Ashland’s.
“No one comes into any kind of class as just a brain: They have anxieties, ambitions, interests,” said Paul Lynch, director of the prison education program at Saint Louis University in Missouri, which works in a prison system where Ashland has expanded. “We as professors may be the few people they ever see in their lives who see them primarily as a full person—a student of ideas—not as a prisoner. That is what is lost.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.