UC Riverside Unveils Bachelor of Arts Program at Norco State Prison

The program will be the second bachelor's degree program offered inside a prison by a University of California campus.
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Published on February 28, 2024
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  • The University of California (UC), Riverside announced it will be offering a bachelor of arts degree program at Norco California Rehabilitation Center starting in fall 2024.
  • Incarcerated students will be able to earn a bachelor's degree in education, society, and human development with a concentration in social justice at little to no cost.
  • The program is modeled after a similar one at UC Irvine and is only the second bachelor's degree program offered inside a prison by a UC campus.

This fall, incarcerated individuals at the Norco California Rehabilitation Center outside Los Angeles will have the opportunity to earn their bachelor's degree from one of the top-rated public university systems in the country.

Roughly 25 students will have a chance to earn a bachelor of arts degree in education, society, and human development, with a concentration in social justice, through the University of California (UC), Riverside's Leveraging Inspiring Futures Through Educational Degrees (LIFTED) program.

The LIFTED program is a prison education initiative aiming to provide meaningful opportunities for incarcerated students to earn their degrees.

UC Riverside estimates that only 1% of U.S. colleges and universities offer a bachelor of arts prison education program. The university is only the second UC campus to offer a bachelor's degree program inside a state prison.

A study by the Rand Corporation found that those who participated in correctional education programs had a 43% lower chance of recidivating than those who did not.

But Farah Godrej and Amos Lee, professors at UC Riverside and co-founders and directors of LIFTED, want students to dream bigger than just staying out of prison. They want their students to continue seeking higher education.

"If [our students] don't go back to prison, we will not be like, 'Well, we did a good job.' We want more than that for those who get a UCR degree," Lee told BestColleges.

Godrej added: "These are people who are going to get released with a University of California bachelor's degree that we hope is going to open doors for them, not just in the arena of employment, but actually in the arena of higher education. We hope many of them will go on to pursue masters and even Ph.D.s and become our colleagues eventually."

Foundations of the Program

The degree program at UC Riverside is modeled after a similar UC Irvine program offered at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County.

"We're replicating a specific model that UC Irvine has pioneered and that was very helpful because that gave us a roadmap for the logistics," Godrej told BestColleges. "Had we not had that model to replicate, I'm not sure we would have known where to start."

Godrej laid out the three factors that needed to align for UC Riverside to be able to pursue a degree program for incarcerated students:

  1. High-level administration support in the Department of Corrections
  2. A correctional institution within commuting distance of the university
  3. A correctional institution with an existing community college partnership offering two-year degrees

Norco College, a community college within the Riverside Community College District, has been a partner of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation since 2017, enrolling approximately 250 incarcerated students from the Norco state prison each term.

"When you have a pool of students who already have two years' worth of coursework under their belt … it makes our job much easier," Godrej explained. "If we did not have that, we would need to offer four years' worth of coursework … and that's a lot more resources."

The LIFTED program also needed a dean at UC Riverside to support the degree program, which Lee found in Joi Spencer, the dean of the School of Education.

"I just approached my dean with it, and she has a view of equity in terms of providing opportunities for those who experience life in the margins," he said. "She said, [yes] immediately, it was the first meeting I had with her … She wanted it to be housed there."

Although the program will be based in the School of Education, it will be a "collaborative endeavor" between the school and the College of the Humanities and Arts and Social Sciences, Godrej said, employing faculty from both.

Students enrolled in UC Riverside's LIFTED program will have four classes a quarter, with three quarters a year. After two years, each cohort of students will graduate, and a new cohort will begin.

Avoiding Putting Students in Debt

The first part of the program's funding came from UC Irvine: $150,000 from part of UC Irvine's $1.8 million in seed money from the state of California to expand the university's LIFTED effort.

UC Riverside also received $25,000 from the Michelson 20MM Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities, according to the group's website.

Godrej says they are committed to being zero-cost for students, meaning they won't have to go into debt to get an education.

Instead, the program will rely on two modes of funding: UC's Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which covers UC tuition and fees for California students with a household income of less than $80,000 a year, and federal Pell Grant funding.

Pell Grants are income-based awards for undergraduates with exceptional financial needs that do not need to be repaid. Previously, incarcerated students weren't eligible for Pell Grants, outside of limited pilot programs, requiring them to pay for their education out of pocket.

"Some of [the students] were quite anxious about [payment] because they just assumed 'I'm gonna have to take out loans,' and we've reassured them that's not [the case]," Godrej said.

Currently, the only prison education program approved by the Department of Education for Pell Grant funding is California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt's bachelor of arts in communication program, which is offered at Pelican Bay State Prison.

However, the department is in the process of approving several other programs, including the ones offered by UC Irvine and UC Riverside.

"In a perfect world, you could apply for Pell before you start, but that's not the world we live in," Lee said. "The classrooms are smaller … and the costs associated with running these programs are much higher."

One way they make up for the lack of funding is by having program organizers work on an uncompensated, volunteer-labor basis. Additionally, faculty in the program will be teaching classes in the prison in addition to their normal workload, for only an additional stipend. And, according to Godrej, faculty members will be teaching the same curriculum.

Involving Formerly Incarcerated Students

UC Riverside's LIFTED program worked closely with the campus chapter of Underground Scholars, a group that helps prospective and current students who were formerly incarcerated and/or have been impacted by imprisonment, detainment, incarceration, etc.

Godrej emphasized that any work the LIFTED program does will have the participation of formerly incarcerated students and system-impacted students on campus, allowing them to participate and shape the program.

"This is the community we're serving, and it's the same community whether inside or outside [prison], these are all people who are system-impacted in different ways," she said.