College Gateway Program Gives Ex-Offenders a New Path

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The College Gateway Program gives ex-offenders a new path to follow: one through higher education. Based at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado  the program supports ex-offenders as they make the transition back into society by providing a pathway to a college education and so much more. Started in 2006, the Gateway Program has helped approximately 1,200 students find their way out of the pattern of crime, which often includes substance abuse, into living a fulfilling life.

While there are some schools with similar programs, the thing that sets College Gateway apart is the focus on finding meaning and purpose, rather than just job placement. The College Gateway Program coordinator, Catherine Lachman, states that “we don’t preach that jobs alone turn people around. What makes a permanent change is finding purpose and meaning in one’s life.” (Part of the basis for this focus comes from the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankle). To this end, College Gateway goes well beyond getting ex-convicts enrolled in college. The program focuses on instilling hope and providing hands-on support. Those who have lost connection with their families (or are trying to avoid those connections if that was their pathway into crime) can participate in holiday parties and other social activities the program provides. For those with economic challenges, College Gateway has their own food and clothing banks. Lachman states “We encourage these students to spend as much time as they can on and around campus. Here they can find a safe place, free from judgment and labels.” This creates an environment that allows ex-convict-current-students to break free from the cycle of crime. Proof of College Gateway’s success is that the program currently as a recidivism rate of 5%, as compared with 57% in the rest of the state.

Many of the students coming into College Gateway do so because they feel it is their last chance. Enrolling in the program begins with an interview process. Potential program enrollees have to demonstrate that they are serious about wanting to make changes. Once enrolled, students can begin taking college courses. Graduation from College Gateway leads to a successful transition into the community college where they can begin working in their degree programs. After completion at the community college level, many of the students go on to attend four-year schools. Some continue with post-graduate studies, pursuing Masters Degrees and Ph.Ds.

One of the benefits Lachman has seen from the method of focusing on meaning and purpose is that it creates a sense in the students that it’s about giving back, not about taking. Many program members have become community volunteers and campus leaders, including president of the campus’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. College Gateway members have also started their own club, which gives back to the community.

The program, as it exists today, got off to a shaky start in 2006. Initially, the plan was to have the program available for judges so that they might use it for an alternative type sentencing. This never occurred and instead it was highly used by probation and parole officers for individuals wanting to go to college. In a short amount of time, the word spread through the ex-offender population that the program really works. In the beginning, Lachman and her team would travel to local prisons, parole meetings, and other places to distribute brochures and give talks on the program. Once it picked up momentum, the majority of students entering college through College Gateway came to the program through word-of-mouth, although Lachman and her team do still travel to local prisons and distribute literature on the program.

When asked if there was any pushback from the school in implementing the program, Lachman responded, “When we first started a few people had fears about bringing ex-cons in, thought it might ruin the school. Some faculty members pulled me aside to express their doubts. Now, we’re such a part of the school that there are no more objections.” This is helped by the fact that none of the College Gateway students have been involved in a violent crime or other criminal activity.

One of the major successes of the program has also been its reduction of substance abuse and improved quality of life. Preliminary results from a program evaluation conducted by W.Neil Gowensmith, Ph.D, of the University of Denver have shown a marked reduction in drug and alcohol abuse, thinking about criminal activity and increased quality of life. The statistics and student testimonials show that The College Gateway Program works. It is because of this that ex-convicts from all over the state of Colorado come to the Red Rocks Community College, sometimes on several hour bus rides – to get a new chance at life.

Catherine Lachman and her team at The College Gateway program believe their success can be replicated at other institutions. They are currently putting together program materials for training sessions on other campuses interested in implementing similar programs. Subscribe to Higher Ed Hero today to receive continued updates on this.

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