Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon is shedding responsibility for an adult basic education and G.E.D. program it runs in three state prisons.
The president of the college says it can no longer afford to run the program, which has been around since the 1980s, and that other existing institutions should take it over.
Blue Mountain plans to instead offer courses for college credit in one of the prisons once federal Pell Grants become available to incarcerated students this summer. As state agencies look for another provider to run the G.E.D. program, some faculty members worry the potential disruption could make it harder for students to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma and continue on to college.
J. Mark Browning, Blue Mountain’s president, recommended ending the college’s administration of the program at a special meeting of the institution’s Board of Education in April. All but one representative on the seven-member board voted to end the college’s involvement in the program, despite dissent from professors, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. The decision resulted in the layoffs of 17 instructors and staff members who work for the program.
Blue Mountain is one of five community colleges in the state that have contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections to offer G.E.D. programs for incarcerated students. The contract with Blue Mountain concludes June 30.
Endi Hartigan, communications director for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, emphasized that the program will continue under other auspices that have yet to be determined.
“All efforts are being made to ensure that there is minimal or no disruption for adults in custody when the contract with BMCC ends in June,” she wrote in an email. “HECC and DOC are working to identify an alternate adult education provider to contract for these services beginning in July.”
According to the commission, 267 students are currently enrolled in adult basic education and G.E.D. programming across the three prisons, and 605 students have been served by the program this academic year.
Dulcie Hays, an adult skills and G.E.D. instructor at Blue Mountain, said incarcerated students are repeatedly asking her what’s going to happen to the program this summer. She doesn’t know what to tell them, except that she’ll work with them as much as she can before she loses her job in June.
“There’s no word or handoff as far as what’s going to happen with these students,” she said, noting that the program has rolling admissions. “I have a new student coming in tomorrow, and what am I supposed to tell that guy? … They’re super frustrated.”
She said one of her students became very upset this week after he failed a G.E.D. test because he doesn’t believe the program will still exist in 60 days when it’s time for him to retake the exam.
“I think education is the No. 1 thing that delivers people out of poverty and out of the cycle of trauma, like our students in corrections,” Hays added.
A 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that, nationally, a quarter of people leaving prison don’t have a high school diploma or an equivalent credential. Formerly incarcerated people are almost twice as likely to lack a high school degree and eight times less likely to complete a college degree compared to American adults over all. Meanwhile, incarcerated students applying for Pell Grants—newly available to them after Congress lifted a 26-year ban in 2020—need a high school credential to qualify for federal financial aid, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.
The move to end Blue Mountain Community College’s involvement with the program comes after the state Department of Corrections renewed adult education program contracts with community colleges in 2021, reversing an earlier plan to cut the colleges out and take over the programming.
Browning, the president, said the new 2021 contract didn’t offer enough funding to continue to meet the costs of Blue Mountain’s program, particularly instructor salaries negotiated through the campus faculty association. The state Legislature initially stepped in to offer a one-time appropriation to cover the gap, but now staff members would have to continue offering the same level of services for lower pay in order for the costs to balance out, which he believes they’re unwilling to do, he said. He estimated a gap of $600,000 or more.
“Where were we going to come up with that kind of money to bridge that gap with an institution that was bleeding enrollment, that was bleeding revenue?” Browning said.
Browning noted that the college’s student head count has shrunk by about two-thirds over the last decade. It went from 9,196 to 3,805 students during from the 2011–12 academic year to the 2021–22 academic year, according to data from the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Enrollment increased slightly during the last two academic years, but “when you’re a third the size of the institution you were 10 years previous, you’ve got to make adjustments in your operation,” he said. For that reason, the college laid off five faculty members in the last budget cycle.
He added that the college wouldn’t have ended its contract to provide G.E.D. education for incarcerated students without knowing there were other colleges or organizations in the region that could take over.
“You want to make sure as many people as possible, regardless of circumstance, have educational opportunities,” he said. “The college has to make a decision: Are we going to make up the difference or are we going to move on and do something else? We made the decision that we’re going to pivot and do something different.”
Blue Mountain has since applied with the Oregon Department of Corrections to offer college courses for credit in one of the prisons, and, if approved, it may expand to other facilities in the future, Browning said. The incarcerated students will be able to access the Pell Grant starting in July.
Browning described providing a college-in-prison program as a “better growth opportunity.”
The adult education and G.E.D. program “doesn’t help us in terms of the state calculation for our overall enrollment,” he said. “You combine that with an opportunity to apply to be a Pell school … which does in fact make Pell monies available for adults in custody, who then pay your tuition, which doesn’t cover your full costs of instruction, but it is something. And it helps me with my enrollment calculation.”
Basia Skudrzyk, workforce equity director at From Prison Cells to PhD, a mentoring program for formerly incarcerated students, emphasized that G.E.D. programs in prisons are an important part of the educational pipeline for these students.
“Nowadays you can’t get a job without a G.E.D. That at least is the traditional viewpoint of the workforce,” said Skudrzyk, also a former G.E.D. instructor. “The opportunity to provide people with education and helping them open their minds and to see that they’re actually capable of doing more than maybe society is telling them they can be is just a really remarkable, restorative and transformative opportunity, not just for that person but for their family.”
Monique Ositelu, CEO, founder and data strategist at ITÀN, a data consulting firm, said G.E.D. education in prisons is plentiful and fairly easy to provide, whereas higher education opportunities are not nearly as prolific, so a college abandoning one for the other isn’t inherently bad.
Still, she said it’s been a long-term concern for herself and other prison education advocates that higher ed institutions may try “to follow the dollars” by opening college credit programs now that incarcerated students are eligible for Pell Grants.
“We want to make sure that the motivations are aligned with the best interests of our students,” said Ositelu, who formerly conducted prison education policy research as a senior policy analyst at the think tank New America.
However, she’s confident that the task of meeting recent federal regulations for starting these programs is arduous enough to weed out institutions that aren’t committed. She said colleges that already have established college programs in prisons through Second Chance Pell, a pilot program launched under the Obama administration, are struggling to meet the new and evolving federal requirements.
Hays doesn’t buy that cutting the adult education and G.E.D. program was the only option. She believes administrators should have gone to the Department of Corrections and made the case for more funding for the program.
She noted that a couple of her students graduated from the program this week.
“It was such a weight off of my shoulders,” she said. “That’s two people that aren’t going to have our school turn their back on them.”