Main Navigation

Ascendium Grant will support new research center focused on postsecondary education in prisons

The Office of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Utah is thrilled to announce an award of $750,000 from Ascendium Education Group to Erin Castro, associate dean of Communities Engagement and Access and associate professor in the College of Education. The funds from this grant will support planning for the launch of a research center focused on postsecondary education in prisons. The proposed center will serve as a national hub for defining critical evidence gaps and advancing rigorous research to inform the design, evaluation, and improvement of postsecondary education programs for incarcerated learners.

“This is an incredible opportunity to advance the work of equity in higher education,” explains Castro. In the midst of Pell Grant expansion for eligible incarcerated people, she notes that the timing is critical. “We are charged with designing and facilitating a research agenda for prison higher education that will squarely consider incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people as worthy college students, and higher education’s responsibility in serving our communities. I am excited to spend the next 18 months planning with our partners and am confident that the University of Utah is the right place for this national center.”

The Center will be firmly committed to research-based praxis. Under the direction of Andy Eisen, director of Prison Education, it will also coordinate a bachelor’s degree program for people incarcerated at the women’s-designated facility at the Utah State Prison —the first of its kind for the state of Utah. “My hope is that the Center will serve as a national hub and a model to leverage the resources of a public, flagship research-intensive institution in addressing inequities caused by mass incarceration,” explains Eisen. This spirit underscores ongoing efforts in serving youth-in-custody and incarcerated adults in Utah.

According to T. Chase Hagood, senior associate vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of Undergraduate Studies, this grant positions the U as a national leader in community engagement and enhances sustainable, mutually-beneficial social impact partnerships throughout the Salt Lake Valley and in West Valley City. It provides meaningful postsecondary opportunities for incarcerated individuals—a population, Hagood explains, routinely excluded from quality, public higher education and workforce pathways. “The field of prison higher education needs leadership from the U and our faculty scholars to effectively bring incarcerated college students into the paradigm and practice of postsecondary education. As the state’s flagship university and the only school from Utah with membership in both AAU and UIA, it is incumbent upon the U to foster improved education outcomes within diverse communities across the state of Utah.”

“Dr. Castro is a tenured faculty in the department of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education. A renowned scholar, she is a higher education expert whose research and scholarship on educating incarcerated adults has influenced policy and practice at the state and national level,” says Frankie Santos Laanan, interim dean of the College of Education. “I am excited about the opportunity for the College of Education to support and collaborate with key stakeholders on this critical work. The grant from Ascendium is evidence of her significant contributions to the field and the influence of her work in creating transformational change by improving the lives of individuals and making positive societal impact.” The center will lead a multi-state, multi-site longitudinal research project with administrators at institutions of higher education to build capacity, infrastructure, and knowledge for impactful practices. The research center will convene decision-makers from academia, penal organizations, and the field at large, working to dismantle policies that inhibit justice-impacted students from accessing an education that measurably improves their lives.

Ascendium Education Group is a 501©(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach the education and career goals that matter to them. Ascendium invests in initiatives designed to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who complete postsecondary degrees, certificates and workforce training programs, with an emphasis on first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color and veterans. Ascendium’s work identifies, validates and expands best practices to promote large-scale change at the institutional, system and state levels, with the intention of elevating opportunity for all.

The mission of UPEP is to advance educational equity through a commitment to social transformation by means of on-site higher education, empirical research, and advocacy. The aim of prison education at the University of Utah is for justice-involved people to express more satisfaction about their education and career prospects, complete at higher rates and in less time, earn more pay upon reentry, and be given the opportunities that many currently lack.

For more information on the Utah Prison Education Project and to sponsor their work, visit