Northwestern University Celebrates First Cohort of Incarcerated Graduates

'Between the World and Me' author Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at the Northwestern Prison Education Program ceremony for 16 graduates, commending them for defying the odds.
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Published on November 30, 2023
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  • Nearly 300 students, faculty, staff, friends, family members, and lawmakers attended the graduation ceremony.
  • The graduates will stay with the Northwestern Prison Education Program as teaching assistants and fellows to help other incarcerated students at the correctional institution earn degrees.
  • Incarcerated students are eligible to receive federal Pell Grants to help pay for college.

Northwestern University just celebrated its first cohort of incarcerated bachelor's degree earners.

The university announced the Nov. 15 graduation of its 16-student cohort from Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois. They were part of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP).

"At Northwestern, we believe in transformation," Provost Kathleen Hagerty said in her graduation address. "In fact, one of our guiding principles is, 'We transform society.' And that's not an easy thing to do. All of our graduates here today can attest to the hard work it takes to make a positive change. I congratulate and commend all our graduates for harnessing the power of education to make positive changes in your lives and to be able to share what you've learned with your communities."

Nearly 300 students, faculty, staff, friends, family, and lawmakers attended the ceremony. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "Between the World and Me," gave the commencement speech, an opportunity he said even "wild horses couldn't stop."

"I don't know you, but I know you. I don't know you, but I love you," Coates said. "I think I can safely say that I will never in my life address a class that's as decorated as this."

Of the 16 graduates:

  • Bernard McKinley became the first incarcerated person in Illinois to take and pass the LSAT.
  • James Soto helped exonerate several incarcerated people.
  • Michael Broadway battled stage 4 prostate cancer, wrote a novel, and reconnected with his mother after two decades on graduation day.

According to Northwestern, the graduates will stay with NPEP as teaching assistants and fellows to help 60 other students at the correctional center earn their bachelor's degrees. NPEP also has 20 students at the Logan Correctional Center for women pursuing bachelor's degrees.

"Throughout these 14 years of incarceration, I've been on this journey of self-reflection, accountability, redemption, transformation, and rehabilitation," one graduate said after receiving his diploma on stage. "Not only for self but also for those who my past transgressions have affected and continue to still affect to this day."

Educational Opportunities for Incarcerated Individuals Increasing

In July, incarcerated students were granted access by the U.S. Department of Education to Pell Grants for the first time since 1994.

Bowie State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Maryland, created a tuition-free sociology bachelor's degree program with an optional certificate in entrepreneurship for incarcerated people at Jessup Correctional Institution.

"The link between education and recidivism is clear: the higher the education, the less likely the chance of recidivism," Charles Adams, Criminal Justice Department chair at Bowie State and co-director of the prison education initiative, previously told BestColleges. "By giving these men a chance at higher education, we can potentially keep them out of prison, thereby improving their lives, the lives of their families, and benefitting society as a whole."

The University of Baltimore hosts a similar program with Jessup Correctional Institution.

On the opposite coast, California State University, Dominguez Hills, began a partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to offer two-year master's degree programs in topics like religion, incarceration, urban development, and abolition through the HUX program.

And in Florida, a Miami Dade College's education program at Everglades Correctional Institution, also known as the Institute for Educational Empowerment (IEE), has served more than 900 incarcerated students since its inception in 2013. It served as a pilot program for the Second Chance Pell Grant, which began under former President Barack Obama in 2015 and has since been expanded twice by President Joe Biden.

Among the program's success stories is Larry "Eddie" Fordham, a formerly incarcerated Florida student who recently earned vocational certificates, and an associate degree from Miami Dade College.

"To me, education means more than just textbooks and long hours of studying," Fordham told BestColleges. "To me, it means redemption. I want to show people that, for guys like me, our past is our past. We can move forward as formerly incarcerated men and actually make a difference in society."