Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations

Funding Faithful Felons: A Phenomenological Analysis of the Higher Education Transitions of Ex-Offender Scholarship Recipients

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Ellen Broido (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Melissa Burek (Other)


The purpose of this study was to address gaps in post-secondary education research regarding ex-felons’ higher education experiences in order to help student affairs practitioners make campus environments and services more accessible to and welcoming for these populations. This study centers on the experiences ex-felons have had as they have transitioned into, through, and out of higher education.

The Charles W. Colson Scholarship program, a need-based full-tuition and housing scholarship program at Wheaton College, provided the setting for this research. Six ex-felon men who earned bachelor’s degrees through the program participated in one face-to-face semi-structured individual interview of approximately three hours. The interviews elicited findings in five broad areas: (1) personal assets and liabilities, (2) coping strategies, (3) factors influencing disclosure of criminal pasts, (4) educational outcomes, and (5) supports and opportunities for greater support.

Participants’ shared essential experience consisted of three distinct phases centering on their expectations. The Scholars interviewed entered Wheaton College with high expectations regarding their future college experiences. Moving through Wheaton, their expectations increased but shifted to post-graduate aspirations regarding future employment or ministry positions. As they moved out of their higher education experience, they found that their vaunted expectations had become unrealistic given their limitations and liabilities exacerbated by the real world conflicts they faced.

As a result of these conflicts with their lofty aspirations, each participant began to question the pragmatism of his initial expectations, and to deconstruct them in order to reconstruct new expectations. However, this process caused recurring struggles within the participants as some battled with guilt for reconstructing their expectations while others struggled with patience regarding delays in their perceived timelines. No matter the struggles nor how often they recurred, each participant concluded that even if he had not accomplished all, or any, of the lofty goals to which he had once aspired, as long as he invested significantly in the life of one other person, he had accomplished something worthy of the investment that had been made in him.