Incarceration to Graduation: Helping Men of Color Transition from the Criminal Justice System to Higher Education

Nesha Savage
Innovation Showcase

A number of promising interventions have potential to benefit previously incarcerated young men of color (Wimer & Bloom, 2014). Several studies have shown that proactive programs that help young men of color connect to and progress through postsecondary education and training, as well as interventions that focus on emotional well-being and interpersonal problem-solving, lead to lower rates of recidivism, higher completion rates, and greater levels of employment (Patel & Valenzuela, 2013; Scrivener & Weiss, 2013; Heller, Pollack, Ander, & Ludwig, 2013).

Thus, in conceptualizing and designing the Parker Scholars Program at San Diego City College, we hypothesized that men who have access to postsecondary education and a range of academic, social, and emotional supports to facilitate their successful transition will be less likely to engage in criminal behaviors and activities that lead to incarceration. The Parker Scholars Program is significant because 92.4 percent of incarcerated 18- to 24-year-olds are men (College Board, 2011). This trend holds true when data are disaggregated by race/ethnicity, with males accounting for approximately 95 percent of African American, 93 percent of Hispanic, 91 percent of Native American, and 89 percent of White 18- to 24-year-olds who are incarcerated (College Board, 2011). According to the 2014 MDRC report, Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color (Wimer & Bloom. 2014), incarceration can derail the educational progress of young men of color. This is of particular concern given that young men of color have disproportionate rates of incarceration. For instance, in 2010, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated and Hispanic men were more than two and a half times more likely to be incarcerated (Drake, 2013).

The men who were sought for participation in the Parker Scholars Program represented a pool of untapped potential. With ongoing education and support, these men could earn college degrees and/or certificates, obtain careers in high-demand fields, and make meaningful contributions to the San Diego community. Finally, the program model can become an exemplar for future efforts to provide educational programs and transition services to men who have been involved in the criminal justice system.

Program Structure to Address the Need

The Parker Scholars Program was designed to help men who have been involved with the criminal justice system transition to San Diego City College. Specifically, men between the ages of 18 and 24 who are currently or were previously on probation in the San Diego Superior Court system were targeted for participation. While the program aimed to serve men who met these criteria, there was a targeted focus on African American and Latino males. The program partnered with San Diego State University’s Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) and the Juvenile and Court Community Schools (JCCS) in San Diego County. Participants in the Parker Scholars Program were integrated into the academic and social community of San Diego City College through the college’s award-winning First-year Experience Program, which provided assistance with the matriculation process (i.e., application assistance, financial aid, assessment, and orientation), a personal growth course, career and education planning, academic support, social/cultural mentoring activities, and counseling services. The Parker Foundation was a likely funding source since the program objectives aligned with the Foundation’s mission to support efforts that can lead “to the betterment of life for all people of San Diego County” (Parker Foundation, n.d.).

The Parker Scholars Program was a multifaceted effort focused on supporting students at critical points along their matriculation to higher education. The program served approximately 50 students, 30 of whom were men involved in the criminal justice system. The remaining 20 students were African American and Latino men who were enrolled at San Diego City College, but were not involved in the criminal justice system. We envisioned the latter group providing peer mentoring and guidance in navigating the college environment for the men who were formerly incarcerated. The relationship with the peer mentor would ensure greater validation, sense of belonging, and integration (social and academic) for the men in the program.

Impact of Program Components on Student Success

Comprehensive outreach and recruitment activities were employed to ensure participants had the necessary information and resources needed to be successful in college. Outreach activities were directed at men from JCCS and served as a central resource for connecting the men to higher education and the opportunities available to them at San Diego City College. The men were also supported through the matriculation process, which allowed them to receive the core services for the Student Success and Support Program (SSSP). Additionally, all students enrolled in a personal growth course during their first year of enrollment. The personal growth course focused on helping students to develop healthy and conflict-free identities (e.g., cultural, gender). The course also aimed to teach empowerment skills such as self-responsibility, self-motivation, self-management, interdependence, self-awareness, lifelong learning, emotional intelligence, and belief in oneself. Based on the data from student interviews, the course was significant to students’ success in their first year of college.

In light of the SSSP mandates, the Parker Scholars Program assisted the men in meeting the core services to ensure registration priority and progress toward program completion. Career exploration and education planning was provided to all program participants. Career exploration focused on acquainting students with the range of career options available to them. Resources from the San Diego City College Career Center were utilized to identify students’ interests, aptitudes, and potential career paths. The program counselor worked with students to review and interpret the results of their career interest and aptitude assessments, discuss student career goals, and link their goals to a major at San Diego City College and/or a transfer program at the four-year institution. Students worked with a counselor to develop an abbreviated education plan, as well as a comprehensive education plan that outlined the courses needed for degree or certificate completion, and/or transfer. Further, all students had access to personal counseling provided by the program counselor. Students dealing with emotional and psychological issues received counseling and, when necessary, were referred to other campus support programs or community agencies.

The cultural-social component of the program entailed students engaging in campus activities, such as the San Diego City College World Cultures Program, which showcased authors, poets, artists, and presenters from different ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles, orientations, and abilities. Program participants also accessed positive role models and mentors through an annual conference and other mentoring activities, which, according to the published research, have a profound influence on degree attainment and long-term educational success for young men of color (Heller et al., 2013). The mentoring component was designed to help establish important relationships and networks that function as a conduit for information about jobs and other opportunities.

Evaluation and Scaling Up Interventions

Multiple strategies will be employed to assess the impact of the program and the extent to which program goals are achieved. Program participants will be asked to complete the Community College Survey of Men (CCSM) for benchmarking purposes (Harris & Wood, 2013). The CCSM will be administered at the end of the academic year to assess program impact on student success indicators. Focus group interviews will be conducted with program participants in order to learn about students’ overall experience in the program. In addition, ethnographic observations of the personal growth courses will occur during students’ first year to better understand the significance of emotional well-being and interpersonal problem solving skills to student success for previously incarcerated men of color. The findings from the evaluation methods will help identify effective interventions that promote positive student outcomes among this student population.


Drake, B. (2013). Incarceration gap widens between whites and blacks. Washington, DC; Pew Research Center.

Harris, F., III, & Wood, J. L. (2013). Community college student success inventory (CCSSI) for men of color. San Diego, CA: Minority Male Community College Collaborative.

Heller, S. B., Pollack, H. A., Ander, E. & Ludwig, J. (2013). Preventing youth violence and dropout: A randomized field experiment. NBER Working Paper No. 19014. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research

Lee, J. M., Jr. (2011). The educational experiences of young men of color: A review of research, pathways, and progress. New York: The College Board.

Parker Foundation (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from

Patel, R., & Valenzuela, I. (2013). Moving forward: Early findings from the performance-based scholarship demonstration in Arizona. New York: MDRC.

Scrivener S., & Weiss, M. J. (2013). More graduates: Two-year results from an evaluation of accelerated study in associate programs (ASAP) for developmental education students. New York: MDRC.

Wimer, C., & Bloom, D. (2014). Boosting the life chances of young men of color: Evidence from promising programs. New York: MDRC.

Nesha Savage, Ed.D., is a professor at San Diego City College.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.