Nationally, nearly half of all inmates released from prison return there after committing another crime. But the recidivism rate among those who’ve earned college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, an adjunct program operated by liberal arts school Bard College inside six medium and maximum security prisons in New York, is far lower: Since the program began in 2001, more than 400 convicts have graduated and eventually been released. Just 2% end up back behind bars.
Most also have no trouble finding work. “It’s not that they just don’t return to prison,” says BPI founder and executive director Max Kenner. “It’s that they become independent middle-class taxpaying citizens, neighbors, and pals. They’re engaged in their communities and all kinds civic and positive and educational ways.”
The program is structured to resemble a classic college curriculum for associate and bachelor level degrees. BPI has roughly 60 classes overall, which span the liberal arts spectrum from advanced calculus to genetics, and Mandarin Chinese. Students are encouraged to take a full load—about four to five classes per semester—to complete their degrees within the same timeframe as those might outside the walls. Common majors include mathematics, humanities, and social studies, which include a senior thesis that must be defended in front of an academic committee.