Colleges and universities around the U.S. are facing a profound enrollment crisis. The number of students entering American institutions of higher education has dropped for seven straight years, as the vast Millennial generation ages out of prime college-going years and older students who flooded into colleges after the recession have found jobs. Since last spring alone, enrollment in postsecondary programs decreased by about 230,000 students. Declines have been steepest in the Northeast and Midwest, where the overall population is stagnant or shrinking--and where, ironically, a disproportionate number of colleges and universities are located. An even bigger drop-off is likely to hit a decade from now, thanks to falling birth rates since the 2008 financial crisis, according to demographers.
Declining enrollment has already led a number of for-profit colleges and a few small liberal arts schools to close or merge. It has put other schools under serious financial pressure, especially less-selective institutions like community colleges and regional state universities, which typically serve students from their surrounding communities rather than recruiting them--as elite schools do--from across the country.
But for all the fiscal pain, falling enrollment has an upside: it has led many schools to change their behavior in socially beneficial ways. To boost admissions, for instance, colleges are increasingly cutting tuition prices and recruiting among groups they generally used to ignore, including minorities, adults, and first-generation students. Some institutions are also doing more to help such students, who are often underprepared academically and in danger of dropping out. This requires higher up-front expenditures for things like college counselors but results in more tuition revenue for the universities as students stay in school longer. (See Kevin Carey, "Why More Colleges Should Treat Students Like Numbers," page 54.)
In such an environment, it's probably only a matter of time before schools start actively recruiting students like Justin Roslonek. A senior at Rutgers University-Newark, Roslonek lives in an apartment near campus. On many Sundays, you can find him at Our Lady of Czestochowa, a cocoa-colored brick Catholic church in Harrison, where he hangs out with his grandmother. He loves the traditional Polish food he grew up eating, but can't hide his affinity for greasy Chinese American fare. A marketing major in the business school with a GPA just shy of 3.9, he is due to graduate this December.
He also spent more than a decade and a half behind bars for attempted homicide in a robbery-related incident committed when he was sixteen years old.
Former prisoners aren't much of a presence on most American college campuses. But fifty-four of them are currently enrolled at Rutgers-Newark and its sister campuses in Camden and New Brunswick. Another sixty have already graduated with bachelor's degrees from Rutgers, and eight have earned master's degrees.
What brought them to Rutgers was an innovative program called the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), a partnership between the state's department of corrections and several two- and four-year colleges in the state. Under NJ-STEP, inmates can take college classes while in prison (more than 500 are currently doing so) and, when they leave, have their credits transfer smoothly to participating...