See Who's Funding College Behind Bars

Ford Foundation's Higher Education for Social Justice program is all about pushing policies and reforms that extend higher education opportunities to disadvantaged and marginalized populations — and that includes the incarcerated.

Recent grants from Ford supported two of the largest prison higher education programs in the country -- one in New York state and another in California. Ford awarded $500,000 to the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y., and $200,000 to the Prison University Project Inc. in California.

Bard Prison Initiative is the largest program of its kind in the nation. It enrolls more than 250 men and women in prisons across New York state in a range of academic disciplines, enabling them to earn degrees from Bard College, one of the nation's most respected private liberal arts institutions. The program began in the late 1990s as a tutoring program and in 2005 awarded its first degrees to inmates. The initiative offers more than 60 courses per semester. 

Prison University Project, meanwhile, offers higher education opportunities for inmates in California's notorious San Quentin state prison near San Francisco. The program began in the 1990s in response to the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which barred prison inmates from receiving Pell Grants, effectively ending most prison higher education programs.

Past research by the Correctional Education Association and others has demonstrated a strong link between educational attainment by prisoners while incarcerated and lower rates of criminal recidivism upon release. This translates to safer communities and savings for taxpayers.

Besides supporting the continued operations of these programs with its grants, Ford hopes to demonstrate how programs such as those at Bard and San Quentin can be replicated across the country, improving higher education opportunities for inmates in other states.