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Voices of the Global Community


Don Sebera, Ohio University

Did you know that print-based distance-education programs bring higher education to incarcerated individuals? I advise students enrolled in one such program.

While some may advise the occasional incarcerated student who enrolls in a print-based class requiring no Internet access, it is unlikely that your program actively recruits these individuals as a student. Our program does.

The Ohio University program evolved into a total distance-education program, as on-site programs disappeared after legislation eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. Although delivering services to incarcerated students was a political hot potato for many institutions, our program persisted, and over the last three years, monthly enrollments have tripled.

What are your ideas about this student population group? Take a moment and give it some thought before proceeding. Have some ideas? Let’s see how accurate you are.

About 95% of our current students are male. Their average age is 33 years. They typically come from California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas. Most impressive, their collective college GPA is 3.2. Many seek, but few earn Bachelor’s degrees. In fact, just five of 38 degrees awarded since 2000 were baccalaureate degrees. These students pursue business-oriented associate degrees to become self-employed, believing their recent position with the state or Federal government will not provide a resounding endorsement for others to hire them. They honestly seek a second chance, and I like to believe most earn it.

Like most incarcerated individuals, a majority of these students are under-prepared, and developmental math and English courses are in heavy demand. Many have little or no college and the GED is their only academic credential. Yet, ironically, the incarcerated program produces my brightest students.

Although our students typically take twice as long to earn a degree as on-campus students, there are exceptions. One student has completed half the degree requirements in only two-and-a-half year and is on track to finish the remaining courses in the next year-and-a-half, while maintaining a 3.3 GPA. Another student earned an ‘A’ on a special project to gain senior level math credit in modern algebra. Prior to incarceration, another student worked internationally under a different name and did not have access to original documents. He completed the experiential learning program by producing the required documentation from memory. These experiences are not uncommon. In fact, on-campus professors frequently comment that our students have been the best distance students to ever take their class.

While these students’ academic achievements are impressive, the hurdles they overcome only add credence to their accomplishments. Study environments and testing conditions are often poor. Institutional respect for education varies by facility and thus many students have little assistance or support from prison staff. Often, students are limited to courses that require no hardbound books, or contraband items, such as highlighters or maps. Courses, such as introductory aviation, are deemed to be security threats and are not allowed.

Money is paramount. Because these students do not qualify for federal financial assistance, family members sacrifice to cover enrollment expenses for the individual who was once the family breadwinner.

Advising these students is a challenge! Most communications take place through U.S. Mail; therefore advising these students is time consuming; reading and writing letters consumes a majority of my time. Phone communication with the student is almost non-existent, though communication with families is frequent. Each student provides release of information forms upon entering the program. These forms save time, and frustration, when addressing issues related to material shipments, courses, finances, degree requirements, and careers. It is one-stop shopping at its best.

The humanistic side of advising these students is most significant. As their academic advisor, I understand why they are incarcerated, because they tell me. I know their horrible mistakes and must remind myself that I work with a student, who often is also a parent, and not just a felon. I feel their pain when a new student calls for information and gives a prison address. I feel their frustration and helplessness at not being able to make things better or to change history.

I have learned to work with a population who will one day live on the outside. Without education, many will find their way back to prison. With education, many more will lead productive lives and contribute to society, rather than take from it.

If you have the opportunity to work with incarcerated students, reserve judgment for later. View your opportunity as an investment in the betterment of society. Most likely it will be an investment that returns more than any Wall Street bull market.

Don Sebera
Ohio University
Independent and Distance Learning Program Advisor

Cite this article using APA style as: Sebera, D. (2004, June). The challenge of advising truly non-traditional students. Academic Advising Today, 27(2). [insert url here]

Posted in: 2004 June 27:2


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