Britton awarded prestigious CAREER award from National Science Foundation

Professor Tolani Britton wearing black blouse with white polka dots smiling at camera

About Tolani Britton

Prior to earning her doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Professor Britton worked as a high school math teacher and college counselor in New York City public schools and as a policy analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France. Her scholastic credentials include a Master of Arts in Economics from Tufts University, a Master of Arts in French Cultural Studies from Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in both Economics and French Literature from Tufts University.

Her awards include an AERA Division L (Educational Policy and Politics) Early Career Award and a CIES Ernest D. Morell African Diaspora Emerging Scholar Award in 2022; 2021 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow; 2020 Russell Sage Foundation Pipeline Grant for Emerging Scholars; a 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellow.

Read more about Professor Britton on her profile page

The National Science Foundation has awarded Assistant Professor Tolani Britton a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award that will support her scholarly work in understanding the STEM postsecondary trajectories of students who have conviction histories.

The award supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization, and to build a foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Britton’s research is timely, given increased interest by national, state, and local policymakers in providing access to higher education to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated persons and those who have conviction histories.

“Providing a college education to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons is not a question of reducing recidivism but rather a question of ensuring more equitable access to education previously denied,” Britton said.

Many incarcerated persons received low-quality elementary and secondary education and often were pushed out of school through unfair disciplinary practices, excessive presence of police officers in schools, and other features of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Within this framework, taking college courses and completing a certification or degree could offer incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons the opportunity to improve educational attainment, employment opportunities, and a range of social outcomes associated with higher education, including better health and civic engagement.

Britton’s study, and the research papers produced, will begin to address such critical questions. She noted that STEM degrees often provide a relatively higher return in the labor market.

“Years of high incarceration rates have led to a series of negative social and educational outcomes, particularly in working class communities of color. However, there is less evidence about what works to ameliorate the lives of persons with conviction histories and the ways in which there might be positive spillover effects from education for individuals, their families, and their neighborhoods,” she said.

In 2014, California passed SB 1391, a law allowing for equal per-student funding of college courses in prison and on campus.

Given the legislation and the myriad of barriers that many students from working-class backgrounds and students of color face in accessing and being successful in college, Britton’s findings are expected to inform policy, approaches to expanding postsecondary education, and the body of knowledge on educational access and success for individuals with conviction histories.

Specifically, Britton is looking at whether formerly incarcerated persons in California who took community colleges while imprisoned are likely to re-enroll in a post-secondary program, and stay in the program to earn a community college certificate or degree. She is using regression analysis on data sourced from the state of California between 2012 and 2021.

Additionally, she is examining:

  • institutional conditions associated with higher rates of persistence and completion for students with conviction histories;
  • types of degrees earned by persons with conviction histories;
  • the number of degrees that are earned in STEM fields; and
  • the characteristics of formerly incarcerated persons who earn these degrees.

“For formerly incarcerated persons actively seeking postsecondary education after their release, oftentimes there are limited institutional structures to support them on college campuses,” Britton said, adding that a number of system-impacted students are currently doing critical work in this area, including Shani Shay with Incarceration to College, and Danny Murrillo with UC Berkeley Underground Scholars.

national science foundation logo globe with gold frame

About the Award

NSF CAREER Award is funded by the NSF’s Directorate for STEM Education Core Research program, which supports work that advances fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.

Britton's total intended award amount is $405,125 over five years (2023-2028).