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Monday, September 26, 2022 11:00am, EDT

This fall Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) welcomes its first cohort of 10 students whose college careers began through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. NJ-STEP, a statewide initiative administered by RU-N, works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and a network of public and private, two- and four-year colleges to provide higher education courses to eligible individuals who are incarcerated in one of New Jersey’s seven correctional facilities. The program also assists in the transition to college life of released students who demonstrate they are college-ready and eager to improve their lives.

All NJ-STEP courses are taught in traditional classroom-style settings by faculty of Rutgers University and other college partners. For one course, world-renowned philosopher, scholar, and political activist, Dr. Cornel West, served as the instructor.

“NJ-STEP is smart public policy,” states Todd Clear, RU-N provost and professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. “Studies show that education is the single, most effective way to reduce recidivism. This means that Rutgers University-Newark is able to contribute to the long-term public safety, especially in neighborhoods where large numbers of people return from prison every year.”

Moreover, unbeknownst to most people, NJ-STEP is not a state-funded program, which means it does not derive its revenues from taxpayer dollars.

“Our financial support comes from private donors,” explains Margaret Quern Atkins, director of the program. “To run the program, Rutgers receives grants from The Ford Foundation and the Sunshine Lady Foundation.” NJ-STEP is a part of the Pathways Project, a national prison-education demonstration project administered by The Vera Institute of Justice and funded by Open Society Foundations, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Since its inception in 2013, nearly 825 people have taken at least one of NJ-STEP’s college-level courses. According to Atkins, by the end of this summer, 35 individuals (15 men, 20 women) will have earned associate of liberal arts degrees. Another 25 are slated to earn their associate’s degrees by the end of the fall 2015 semester. It is projected that an aggregate of approximately 100 students will have obtained their associate’s degrees through the program by the end of spring 2016 and a total of 250 through the fall of 2017. Plans are afoot to offer a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in entrepreneurship.

With the exception of courses offered at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, prior to NJ-STEP, a fragmented structure existed in which most of the college credits earned by people while incarcerated did not count toward associate’s or baccalaureate degree requirements. Under NJ-STEP, participating institutions of higher education now accept every credit earned through the program under a formalized curriculum for each degree conferred. The consolidated approach also helps to track students who transfer from one facility to another. It also enables students to transfer their credits and complete their studies upon release from prison.

“Each class of students that earns associate’s degrees is an affirmation of NJ-STEP’s effectiveness,” notes Atkins. “Each diploma is a manifestation of the program’s vision of affording every person in prison who qualifies the opportunity to take college courses while incarcerated and to continue that education upon release.”

Rutgers University is doing its fair share to extend the education continuum established by NJ-STEP. Along with RU-N’s first cohort of 10 NJ-STEP students, this fall Rutgers University-New Brunswick will add eight new students to its current roster of 40. Rutgers University-Camden will welcome its first group in September 2016. Most of the students have declared or will declare majors in social work, information technology, human resources management, or communication.

An admissions counselor helps NJ-STEP participants’ transition to college life. The counselor visits his or her assigned facilities and works closely with the students who are confined there, developing educational plans and, when the time is right, plans for transition to the community including admission to local colleges.

Students who are admitted to Rutgers become part of the Mountainview program. With the goal of getting each NJ-STEP student to RU-N alumnus/alumna status, the RU-N Mountainview program coordinator supports the new students in their adjustment to campus life. Acting as a “portal” to resources at Rutgers and in the surrounding campus communities, the Mountainview coordinator connects students to financial, academic, and other student support services, fosters peer networks, and serves as a mentor.

What’s on the horizon for NJ-STEP? It is exploring collaborations with various community partners to provide NJ-STEP students affordable housing options on or near their respective campuses.

To learn more about NJ-STEP, visit njstep.newark.rutgers.edu and NJ-STEP Changing Lives Behind Bars: Q&A with Provost Todd Clear.

(Photo credit: Arthur Paxton)