Cover: Evaluation of North Carolina's Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Program

Evaluation of North Carolina's Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Program

Published May 22, 2019

by Lois M. Davis, Michelle C. Tolbert


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Research Questions

  1. How was the in-prison component of North Carolina's Pathways Program designed and implemented?
  2. What were the eligibility requirements for Pathways participants? How were they selected?
  3. What funding and resources were available for Pathways participants?
  4. What community colleges and other stakeholders were engaged in North Carolina's Pathways Program?
  5. What were the experiences of Pathways students as they transitioned back into the community? What reentry supports were critical? What factors facilitated or hindered continuation of students' educational programs?
  6. What adjustments were made and what lessons were learned from the North Carolina model?

Before 2013, incarcerated individuals in North Carolina could enroll in college correspondence courses, but there was no coordinated effort to provide a path toward a postsecondary degree or credential. Furthermore, there was no coordination around reentry. The Vera Institute of Justice's Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project (Pathways) was a multistate demonstration project in three states — Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina — intended to create a continuum of higher education and reentry support services that begin two years prior to an individual's release from prison and continue in the community for two years postrelease, with the goal of educational progression and degree attainment.

RAND and RTI International researchers conducted an independent evaluation of the North Carolina Pathways Program, examining the implementation of the in-prison and community components of the program, the experiences of Pathways students and staff, factors that facilitated or hindered their participation in the program, and lessons learned. The findings and recommendations will be of interest to other states, corrections officials, and educators interested in implementing postsecondary education programs for incarcerated adults.

Notably, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) continues to fund components of Pathways after the demonstration project ended. Pathways affected how NCDPS approaches both higher education in prison and reentry planning. It has led to more coordination among prisons and probation and parole officers and community resources. Because of Pathways, education has become the fourth pillar of the department's reentry focus (along with housing, employment, and transportation).

Key Findings

It takes time to set up these programs

  • Implementing a prison-based and community-based college program with multiple partners for a population with diverse education and reentry needs is challenging. Staff and students reported feeling that a longer commitment (e.g., five years) was needed.

The program needs to allow students to change educational paths upon release

  • Postsecondary programs in North Carolina state prisons were limited to a terminal Associate of Applied Sciences degree. The programs offered in prison were for only three majors, which did not always align with students' career interests.

Funding was inconsistent across release communities

  • Although each release community received the same budget, the funding was spent differently depending on the size and needs of the student population and available community resources. Variation in spending caused trust and communication problems and created uncertainty among the reentry staff about available resources.

Reentry supports were critical for students

  • Housing, employment, and transportation were among the top referrals to services provided to Pathways students, followed by family and substance abuse treatment services.

Having a Pathways navigator and trusted persons of authority was important

  • Having a navigator who could help link students to reentry services and assist them in applying for college and financial aid was critical.
  • Having Department of Corrections senior leadership support was key to problem-solving, maintaining support, and understanding the concerns of staff.

Staff training and support is needed

  • Those involved in Pathways needed clear expectations and defined responsibilities. For many college instructors, teaching in a correctional environment was a new experience.


  • Structure the in-prison component of the college program to allow enough time for students to build general credits and earn certifications prior to release.
  • Consider eliminating the state restriction on the types of postsecondary degree programs that can be offered in prison.
  • Structure the program to allow students to initially attend college part-time in the community upon their release from prison. This would allow them to get acclimated and go through the reentry adjustment process and would relieve the stress of trying to go to college full-time while working full-time.
  • Include enough release communities in the program so that students can live near their families and other supports.
  • Invest in reentry infrastructure to ensure that robust reentry supports are available to students.
  • Ensure that community colleges and other education providers are part of the reentry planning and other processes to facilitate students' enrollment and reenrollment postrelease.
  • Ensure that a navigator and other trusted people of authority are in place. The Pathways navigator role was an essential source of support for many students and should be a full-time position. It is important that parole officers understand these programs and support individuals' participation in them.
  • Have a dedicated, full-time program administrator for at least the first few years of program implementation. This individual would need to build partnerships to support the in-prison and community components of the program and be effective in addressing policy barriers.
  • Ensure that long-term funding options are in place to sustain a college program once initial funding has ended.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Laughing Gull Foundation and the Vera Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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