By Christopher Zoukis
While there is plenty of information out there on how to attend college in-person or online, there is very little about how to do so via correspondence. This is the method of study that the majority of prisoners are limited to because they lack the ability to attend classes in-person and don't generally have access to computers or the internet.
In an effort to help prisoners and their family members locate suitable distance learning offerings, the following guidelines are presented:
Locating College Correspondence Programs
The hard truth is that there just aren't nearly as many college correspondence course providers as there used to be. This is largely due to the advent of Internet-based learning modalities. As such, quality offerings are limited.
The top three college correspondence course providers are Adams State University, Upper Iowa University, and Colorado State University at Pueblo. These three schools have quality, established correspondence programs that many prisoners have successfully participated in.
For a more complete profiling of these programs, along with other college correspondence programs and correspondence programs at other levels of study, consider my book Prison Education Guide or the correspondence program profiles at PrisonEducation.com.
Evaluate Each School's Offerings
After locating quality college correspondence programs, the next step is to evaluate each school's offerings. For the most part, correspondence program providers tend not to offer all that many courses that are accessible to prisoners. This is because many correspondence courses require students to have the use of a DVD player, computer, or other media player. Luckily, there are programs that are entirely paper-based. These tend to consist of textbooks, paper study guides (which direct the student to read certain textbook chapters and complete certain assignments), and written lessons, all of which can be completed entirely through the mail. All three of the above course providers foot this bill.
After verifying that the correspondence program is paper-based, it's time to think about the program's offerings. One of the reasons that Adams State University is so well-regarded is that they offer a wide variety of courses and degrees. For example, they currently offer certificate programs in paralegal studies, associates degrees in arts and science, and bachelors degrees in English/liberal arts, political science, history, interdisciplinary studies, and business administration. They even offer a Masters in Business Administration via correspondence education. They are the only regionally accredited college correspondence course provider to do so.
Upper Iowa University also offers a large number of certificates, along with associates and bachelors degree offerings, while Colorado State University at Pueblo offers bachelors degrees in social sciences and sociology. Both schools are also regionally accredited.
Once one or several potential programs are selected, it's now time to evaluate their accreditation status. This is a particularly important area in correspondence education as there are plenty of degree mills out there. The key with correspondence education providers, as with regular colleges and universities, is their accreditation. Virtually every quality institution of higher learning is accredited by one of the six regional accreditation bodies that are approved by both the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
For easy reference, the six are as follows:
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Accreditation
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities
A word of caution is due as it concerns the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) (formerly the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)). This organization is a quality organization that focuses on distance education providers, but its focus is primarily on the educational institution offering courses via distance learning. If a school is accredited by both the DEAC and a regional accreditation association (see above), then this is a quality school. But if they are not also accredited by one of the above regional accreditation associations, then there could be an issue. A school generally must be accredited by one of the above regional accreditation agencies in order for their degrees to be approved for state licensure and their credits to be transferrable to other colleges and universities.
Prison Policies and Course Approval
With the college correspondence program selected, the next step is for the incarcerated student to speak with a member of their Education Department to ensure that they are approved to take such correspondence courses. This is usually just a formality where someone with the title of "College Coordinator" will place the incarcerated student on a list of approved students. This way the inmate will be allowed to receive their textbooks and course study guides in the mail. This staff member will also proctor all examinations that the school sends, so it's important for the incarcerated student to be on good terms with this prison staff member.
Enroll and Complete Courses
The final two steps are to order courses and complete them. Ordering courses is typically accomplished by the incarcerated student filling out a course order form (which is usually located in the particular school's correspondence course catalog) and either affixing payment (in the form of an institutional check) or sending the course order form to a family member for them to do so. Once the school receives the order form and payment, the courses will be mailed to the incarcerated student. At that point it is up to the student to fulfill all course requirements (e.g., readings, lessons, and examinations).
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com