The Hope-Western Prison Education Program has made terrific strides since launching the degree-granting phase of the program in August 2021. The program’s first two cohorts are succeeding marvelously as college students. Prospective students for the Third Cohort are now applying to begin their college education in July. We’re very well begun in reaching our goal of four cohorts comprising a total of 80 students.
Eighty students? That’s not very many, you may think. If the transformative power of the combined energies of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary are good for 80 students, why not for 160 students? Why not for 300? Or 1,000?
When it comes to good things, it seems that we’re all from Texas. Big is best. Big houses, big meals, big plans, big big big big. We scoff at small things, small thinking. Small is presumed to be insufficiently visionary and therefore pedestrian and common. Small things are a dime a dozen, we think. Meh.
But what if education — especially education in prison — is different? What if all education is formation, and formation is best accomplished through personal relationships? What if people who have been dehumanized for most of their lives need both the information provided by a college education and the formation provided by professors who — unlike most outsiders who come into the prison — keep coming back? Keep pouring into them. Keep showing them a better way for their lives. Keep pointing them toward something higher. Something better. If a college education in prison requires a face-to-face encounter with people who can model what human flourishing looks like, then smaller is better. In a counterintuitive way, small scales.
While the Hope-Western Prison Education Program understands itself, its students, and its context well enough to plan for targeted, limited growth, there are ways in which we advocate for scaling up and going bigger:
- HWPEP students are agents of scale in spreading their personal transformations throughout the 1,200-person prison in which they reside. They are models for other incarcerated peers. And our focus on admitting people with long, indeterminate, or life sentences creates the possibility of scaling because these are the people who will remain in prison to do the modeling. The power of modeling scales.
- Institutions who do their best work when they emphasize the formative power of education can help scale by partnering together to encourage and model what’s best in college-in-prison. That’s why HWPEP has been working with eight other Michigan colleges and universities who offer or plan to offer degrees in Michigan prisons to form the Michigan Consortium for Higher Education. MiCHEP can bring scale to the idea that educating incarcerated people makes sense for them, their families, their communities, the corrections community, and the state. The power of partnership scales.
- Governments can help scale the good news of college-in-prison through commonsense public policy. The Federal government’s FAFSA Simplification Act, which restores access to Pell Grants for people in prison, will make it possible for thousands to access higher education. HWPEP is very pleased with our progress in moving toward the day when Pell Grants will cover the lion’s share of the cost of our students’ education, leaving our fundraising for closing the gap and providing the co-curricular opportunities that will move their educational experiences closer to what happens on the Holland campus. The power of public policy oriented toward the common good scales.
Is the Hope-Western Prison Education Program big or small? Perhaps it’s a small program built on a big idea. Perhaps it’s a small program that scales big. Really big.