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Augustana Prison Education Program receives $1 million grant

The Austin E. Knowlton Foundation has committed a $1 million grant to Augustana's Prison Education Program, announcing a 10-year commitment to the initiative.
Credit: Josh Lamberty, WQAD

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — The Austin E. Knowlton Foundation announced that it's committed a $1 million grant and a 10-year commitment to Augustana's Prison Education Program initiative. 

The sustaining grant will provide APEP $100,000 annually, enabling the program to serve more students with expanded resources. It'll also allow for a more comprehensive college and transitional experience. This includes access to greater library and technological resources, more guided research and internship opportunities, as well as return-to-career-readiness programs. 

APEP classes are taught by Augustana faculty inside the East Moline Correctional Center, and the curriculum focuses on the college’s liberal arts focus. Dr. Sharon Varallo, professor of communication studies, constructed Augustana’s program based on the Bard Prison Initiative in New York — one of the country’s most prominent prison education programs. 

“The Austin E. Knowlton Foundation is delighted to continue to partner with Augustana and Dr. Varallo’s team at APEP to provide long-term core funding support for this exceptional effort to bring Augie classes and degrees to Quad Cities residents whose lives can be dramatically transformed by access to education,” said Eric Lindberg, trustee and chief investment officer of the Knowlton Foundation and trustee of Augustana College. 

“The Knowlton Foundation is committed to being an innovative partner to colleges and universities, including enabling access to education in ways that empower justice while benefiting all of society,” Lindberg said. “We’re grateful to Augustana, the Illinois Department of Corrections and all parties who have united to positively change the lives of these men.” 

APEP began in the fall of 2021 with a $225,000 seed grant from the Knowlton Foundation. Augustana institutional or tuition funds are not used to finance the program. APEP is supported through the generosity of individual, foundation and corporate donors. 

APEP classes were taken by ten individuals incarcerated at the correctional center in 2021-2022, pursuing a bachelor’s in communication studies. A total of 24 students were admitted for the 2022-2023 school year. Through the Knowlton funding, the college hopes to add American studies as a new major choice for APEP participants. 

APEP students are the first in Illinois to utilize the new Second Chance Pell awards from the U.S. Department of Education. The program allows individuals in custody to participate in post-secondary education programs with Pell grant funding. It's the first program of its kind in Illinois since formerly incarcerated persons were banned access to Pell grants in 1994. 

In addition to the Knowlton Foundation grants, the program has achieved broad philanthropic support. This includes a $50,900 award from BPI for the installation of a computer lab and a $20,000 grant from the Regional Development Authority in Davenport, Iowa, to fund the hiring of an administrative assistant position to serve as liaison between APEP and Augustana offices, the EMCC, the Illinois Department of Corrections, and community services. 

Research shows that graduates of prison education programs like APEP are approximately 20 times less likely to return to prison after their release. According to Dr. Varallo, for every dollar spent on college classes for incarcerated people, five dollars are saved on the cost to the community. 

The Austin E. Knowlton Foundation was created to promote the ideals of higher education, support student success, and enable colleges and universities to pioneer more inspiring and rewarding educational experiences.

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