To the prisoners hungry for knowledge, the promise seemed almost too good to be true.

And yet, a Minnesota Department of Corrections official tapped specifically to expand inmate education opportunities stood before them and offered a vision for the future most had never considered: rigorous, full-time college — behind bars.

Under a pilot program slated for next fall, incarcerated men and women could soon pursue a variety of bachelor's degrees from some of the state's leading research institutions, including the University of Minnesota.

"It's going to be one of the best liberal arts or university colleges in the state," Daniel Karpowitz told a classroom full of Stillwater prisoners this month. "And it's going to be here."

The agency is partnering with the U, Inver Hills Community College/Dakota County Technical College and Augsburg University to launch its ambitious College at Prison project, which will eventually offer courses at select correctional facilities across Minnesota. Other schools, like Metro State University, have also expressed interest.

A $150,000 grant from Ascendium Education Group will fund a yearlong planning process to develop the curriculum. The DOC is expected to earn another $800,000 from the education nonprofit for the program's implementation.

Karpowitz, who started his role as the DOC's education director in June, dreams of restoring Minnesota to its place as a national leader in higher education prison programming — one that attracted visitors like former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who spoke at an inmate graduation ceremony during the 1970s.

As a Gov. Tim Walz appointee, Karpowitz took his mandate seriously, pursuing philanthropic money to fast-track a program that would shift educational opportunities from limited online courses to a diverse array of in-person instruction. By incorporating stern entry requirements and difficult course work, Karpowitz believes he can slash recidivism rates among the local prison population. The model builds off that of his former employer, the Bard Prison Initiative in New York, which saw just 4% of its 500 released alumni return to prison.

"It's not about producing degrees fast. It's about doing things that are academically excellent," he said in an interview. "Too often in this country we open a door to people and the trade-off is that we lower the ceiling. These programs won't do that."

In New York, the Bard program claims that 85% of its graduates found employment within two months of their release, and Karpowitz believes Minnesota could see the same success.

News of the shift sparked an initial wave of anxiety among the inmates, who feared that face-to-face learning would displace the online degree program through Ashland University in Ohio. Just 84 of the 9,600 people incarcerated inside Minnesota prisons are enrolled at Ashland, working toward a bachelor's in communications — the only degree now delivered on electronic tablets. Federal Pell grants subsidize the courses.

Corrections administrators tout those tablets as a boon for the agency because of the freedom it provides students like Ron Greer, who is serving a life sentence for murder, to work and attend school simultaneously.

"If I want to stay up til 3 a.m. and take a class, I can do that," said Greer, sports editor of the inmate-run newspaper, the Prison Mirror. "I don't have to physically be in a classroom to do my work."

At Moose Lake prison, officer Daniel Mikkelsen facilitates the Ashland courses for a group of men who earn between 50 cents and $4 an hour during their day jobs. Many send what little money they earn back home to help support their families on the outside.

Full-time college instruction without compensation would force inmates to make hard choices about what's most important, he said.

"One will help them in the future; one can help their families right now," Mikkelsen said. "For so many years, these guys have never had options so it's overwhelming to them."

During recent prison visits around the state, Karpowitz has assured students that distance learning isn't going away. If anything, use of online programming may expand, he said, to supplement live lectures by Minnesota-based faculty.

The prospect is so attractive to Ashland student Rusttee Torres that he said he would even forgo transferring from Stillwater to a lower-security facility in order to stay and complete his degree of choice.

"It's not wasted on us," said Torres, who's serving a life sentence for murder. "If you can change the way we think ... then we're going to make better choices."

Rank-and-file officers credit higher-education classes with having the single greatest impact on prisoners' maturity and overall behavior. But some staff members, who often struggle to finish their own degrees amid grueling hours and forced overtime, are frustrated by what they see as a disparity.

"It's bittersweet, because these women can take a for-credit college class for 10 bucks," said Crystal McDonnell, a teaching assistant at Shakopee women's prison. "It's amazing for them, whereas you and I have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for classes."

Under the re-imagined College at Prison pilot program, corrections officers would also be eligible to pursue higher-ed degrees onsite for a discounted rate — an incentive officials hope will attract new recruits to an agency that has historically struggled to hire qualified applicants.

The move would also have a dramatic effect on morale and retention, said Stillwater Warden Guy Bosch. Completing a graduate degree offers employees upward mobility within the department and helps change the quality of their interactions with offenders.

"I think staff are going to jump all over this," he said. "The return on investment is extraordinarily high."

Karpowitz hopes to increase the department's nominal tuition-assistance benefit but still needs to secure more philanthropic dollars to fund the endeavor. The agency is likely to lobby for that cause at the Legislature during the next biennial budget session.

If all goes according to plan, officers and inmates could be taking the same, albeit separate, courses by next fall.

Back at Stillwater prison, Karpowitz's proposal was met with plenty of skepticism from the incarcerated students, who pressed him on the logistics — most of which haven't been ironed out yet. At the end of the presentation, one man shot his hand in the air.

"Do you think we're reaching too high?" he asked in earnest.

Karpowitz leaned in and smiled. "I don't reach too low," he said. "We're going to set the bar."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648