Call for Proposals: The Future of Higher Learning in Prison

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation invites proposals from organizations and programs in the United States and its territories that focus on the future of higher learning for incarcerated students. These grants will provide support to prison education providers and to organizations that analyze and support that work who seek to expand or stretch in this moment of pandemic-generated crisis and national reckoning on questions of race and justice—and beyond.  We seek proposals from organizations who are imagining and implementing visionary educational practices; who are interrogating the linkages between education and liberation; and who place the humanities at the center of their work.   

Since 2015, the Mellon Foundation has supported programs providing college- and university-level instruction in US prisons.  This work stems from the Foundation’s commitment to higher learning as a pathway to self-discovery, civic engagement, community building, and liberation, and from our deeply held belief that the beauty, transcendence, and freedom found in education must be made available equitably.  We believe that the humanities provide practical training in critical thinking and other essential skills.  Our goal is to strengthen inclusive, multi-vocal humanities education that supports the envisioning and sustaining of more robustly engaged and just societies.   

For the purposes of this call, “prison education” encompasses a range of program types that keep the humanities as their focus; are devoted to the highest-quality, rigorous, university-level instruction; prioritize a view of each student as deserving education as a fundamental human right; and remain as accessible as possible to every incarcerated student regardless of the circumstances and term of their incarceration.  This competition is open to prison education programs that confer university or college credit towards degree-granting programs, and to organizations whose mission includes the analysis and support of higher education in prison. Transferrable credit-granting programs are also eligible. We will also consider proposals that include opportunities to support the continuum of education post-release. Through this call, Mellon seeks to engage existing grantees and to broaden our commitments within the field. We seek applications that put bold ideas into practice in order to further the Foundation’s commitment to the dignity and humanity of every incarcerated individual.   

This funding opportunity is overseen by the Foundation’s Higher Learning program in collaboration with the Office of the President. 

About This Grant Program 

This call for proposals derives from the following set of questions: 

  • What is the future of higher education for incarcerated students during this pandemic and in the years that will follow? 
  • Taking the pandemic and the national conflagration around anti-Black racism as context, what is possible in prison higher education now that wasn’t before, and how might providers act on those possibilities? 
  • How might curricula and pedagogy, and/or other aspects of college-in-prison programs change in and as we emerge from the Covid crisis?  
  • How might innovative pedagogical and curricular developments for incarcerated students also support and/or intersect with local and national efforts at decarceration and reentry into society for system-impacted individuals?  
  • How might prison education programs teach a pedagogy and curriculum of freedom/liberation? 
  • How might programs facilitate peer learning among incarcerated people, both to complement participation in formal education programs and to demonstrate the value of learning even absent attainment of a degree? 
  • What is the role of the humanities in providing practical training to incarcerated students? 
  • What opportunities for generative collaboration might exist within Department of Corrections systems and across existing prison education programs?  
  • What new roles might technology reasonably and productively play in prison higher learning programs, without capitulating to predatory technology providers or sacrificing our deep commitments to face-to-face instruction? 
  • What opportunities exist for prison education programs to think innovatively and act boldly at this moment of crisis and beyond? 

About This Call for Proposals 

This 2020 Call for Proposals on the Future of Higher Learning in Prisons is now open. Through this program, direct support may be available both to providers of college-in-prison programs and to those affiliated with or providing research, curricular, or other support to such programs, possibly including transfer pathway support, career advising, and general counseling support for those leaving incarceration and matriculating to another college or university, or who require other forms of re-entry support.   

These funds are intended to provide an opportunity to pilot innovations and new approaches in existing programs. While future Foundation support may be possible, grantees are encouraged to include sustainability planning in the proposal narrative.    

Applications will be due by August 28, 2020 at 12:00 pm ET. Proposals will be evaluated by Foundation staff and an external panel of reviewers. All applicants will be notified of the status of their submission by October 16, 2020. If selected, additional information and materials will be requested in a final proposal to be reviewed by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. 

Grants will range from $250,000 to $1,000,000, for use over a two-year period.  

Grant periods would begin January 1, 2021 and end on December 31, 2022. 


Organizations that respond to this Call for Proposals must: 

  • Be located within the United States or one of its territories. 
  • Have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status or have an organization with 501(c)(3) status serving as a fiscal sponsor. 
  • Have a demonstrated record of success with prison education. 
  • Have an established prison education or affiliated program that has been in operation for two or more years.  
  • Offer courses in the humanities and/or the arts, if the organization is a prison education provider. 
  • Applicants need not be current grantees of the Mellon Foundation.  In order to ensure that your organization is eligible to apply for this funding opportunity, interested applicants must first complete a registration request form

Key Dates 

  • Registration deadline: Friday, August 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm ET 
  • Application deadline:  Friday, August 28, 2020 at 12:00 pm ET 
  • Submission notification: Monday, October 19, 2020 
  • Final proposal deadline: Wednesday, November 11, 2020 (for invited applicants only) 
  • Final notification: Friday, December 11, 2020 (public announcement to follow) 

Visit our applicant resources for further details on how to apply.  If you have any questions about this RFP, please contact program staff at