Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound aims to make life after prison successful

An effort to help former inmates gain access to higher education is coming to Cal State Fullerton, the first initiative of its kind in Orange County.

Project Rebound, a program based out of San Francisco State University, provides mentoring and financial assistance to students who pursue advanced degrees after time behind bars. In addition to Fullerton, it is expanding its operations to CSU campuses in Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Pomona, San Bernardino and San Diego.

“Ninety-nine percent of folks who are incarcerated come back to the community,” said Brady Heiner, director of Project Rebound at Fullerton. “It’s incumbent on us to welcome them … and provide them with the tools they need to succeed.”

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people are released from the county’s jails each year, said Meghan Medlin, board chairwoman for the Orange County Re-Entry Partnership. Even more return to the county from state prisons.

“We have a high number of people who have criminal backgrounds, and we need to get them resources to help them get back on their feet,” she said. “We have programs in our community colleges, but to have one at a university, at that level, is exciting.”


According to educators, formerly incarcerated individuals typically face significant barriers when seeking advanced degrees.

“Some of them are procedural, some are social and cultural, and some are economic, said Heiner, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cal State Fullerton. “What Project Rebound seeks to do is to build a pathway from prison to college to facilitate and assist folks in making that transition.”

Romarilyn Ralston, program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, spent 23 years inside the California Institution for Women. She understands the difficulties firsthand, and says programs like Project Rebound are critical to students’ success.

“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that comes with adjusting to a college campus and sitting in a classroom with students who have a lot of social capital, private school education and supportive parents — and who don’t have the trauma that comes with an incarceration history,” said Ralston, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis.

For Ralston, higher education was not only critical to helping her secure meaningful employment, but also in shaping a new view on life.

“I was able to see myself differently in the world,” she said. “I was no longer a felon. … I was becoming a citizen with rights and responsibilities.”

According to a 2014 report by the Rand Corp., inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison. Lowering the recidivism rate through education is also cost-effective: The study found that every $1 investment in prison education saves about $5 on reincarceration costs.

Project Rebound’s data reveal that only 3% of its students return to prison, compared with the statewide recidivism rate of 65%, one of the highest in the nation.

Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound will offer assistance to ex-inmates in a variety of ways.

Prospective students will receive help completing their applications and, if admitted, will receive customized mentoring and tutoring in their course of study, as well as personal support from the staff.

In addition, Project Rebound will supplement federal and state grants, so that full-time students at the university will pay only $2,000 per year, excluding housing, Heiner said.

His hope is to enroll 10 students at Cal State Fullerton in the program by the spring semester, and then ramp up to 15 in future terms.

Ralston also hopes that the expansion of Project Rebound throughout California will spark change in the public opinion.

“Everyone should have access to quality education in America, and that includes the formerly incarcerated,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. If we want to combat mass incarceration and recidivism, and if we want to help families break the cycle of poverty and incarceration, then we need to invest in higher education for all.”

Kandil writes for Times Community News