The Wharton Program Where MBA Students Are The Teachers — And Prisoners Are The Students

The Wharton Program Where MBA Students Are The Teachers — And Prisoners Are The Students

Resilience Education and Wharton MBA students who participated in the pilot Wharton WORKS workshops. Wharton photo

More than 2,000 students were part of the Wharton School’s MBA programs in 2022-2023. But for the first time this past spring, 16 of these students’ schedules included a new course: “Financial Capability,” a class unlike any other offered at Wharton.

There is no professor delivering lessons — in this course, the MBA students are the teachers. The classroom is 14 miles from the UPenn campus, at SCI Chester, a medium-security prison for men with a history of substance abuse. The actual students are men incarcerated there who enrolled in the course to learn personal finance skills.

The course is part of a new workshop called Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS. The program’s inaugural class was comprised of 25 incarcerated students who read case studies and discussed them with their peers and MBA student facilitators. In April, the students and their student-facilitators gathered for a celebration at the prison, where graduates received a Certificate of Participation bearing the Wharton name.


The Wharton Program Where MBA Students Are The Teachers — And Prisoners Are The Students

Wharton professor Damon Phillips: “What (these students) share is a desire for social change and a real experiential opportunity to be a part of something which is meaningful, not just a classroom thing, but something where they are participating in the solution”

Wharton is the latest school to collaborate with the nonprofit Resilience Education to launch prison education workshops where MBA students teach business and finance classes to groups of incarcerated individuals. These workshops bring knowledge and training usually hard to find outside of a university classroom inside the walls of correctional facilities to help participants find stability and success after their release — and reduce their likelihood of re-incarceration.

Kayla Armstrong is incarcerated at a Virginia prison, where she recently took classes taught by business students from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It is very important,” Armstrong told Charlottesville’s WVIR-TV in May, “not to give up and to know that this program will give you the details, it will give you understanding that everything that you need to return back to society.”

According to Resilience Education, over half a million people are released from prison each year and nearly 70% of these people are arrested again within three years, with unemployment being one of the top risk factors for recidivism.

Tierney Fairchild, executive director and co-founder of Resilience Education, tells Poets&Quants that her organization’s primary role in the new workshops is to help Wharton play a part in ending cycles of incarceration that keep people and families trapped in the carceral system. Wharton Professor Damon Phillips oversaw the creation and implementation of the workshops and sat in on the pilot classes at the prison to give the MBA students feedback and look for ways to improve as the workshops potentially transition to a more permanent structure this fall.

Phillips has experience with workshops of this nature: In 2016, while teaching at Columbia University Business School, he partnered with Resilience Education to create a prison education program at the university. He started teaching at Wharton in 2021 and soon started working with Resilience Education to develop prison education workshops at Wharton.


Kelly Dara is serving a life sentence with a chance of parole at a women’s prison in Virginia; she participated in a Resilience Education workshop at her facility. “It has opened my eyes to another world of business opportunities out there,” Dara told WVIR in May about her classes at a Virginia prison. “I was incarcerated as a teenager, so I never had to do this kind of stuff. I didn’t have to budget and pay bills, credit, things like that,” Dara says, “I didn’t have that kind of experience.”

The incarcerated students aren’t the only ones who leave the workshops with a new understanding. The MBA candidates who lead the classes learn just as much as their students. “The value in Resilience Education: Wharton WORKS is just as much in the act of empowering these justice-impacted individuals as it is changing our (Wharton students’) own views and preconceived notions about prison in this country,” Wharton student Alec Shah said in April after participating in the pilot workshop.

Fairchild speaks about the lasting impacts that come from teaching MBA candidates about issues around reentry and bringing them face-to-face with the “untapped talent pool” within the prison system. She says MBAs who facilitate workshops often think differently about their own hiring practices as they become leaders in the business world, including bringing up the topic of fair-chance hiring to the leadership of the companies they go on to work for. “We are also educating the business community and helping the business community participate and be a part of the solution,” Phillips says.


Much of this learning happens before the MBA students ever set foot in the prison. During the fall 2022 semester, the Wharton MBA students who would be facilitating at SCI Chester in the spring took “Reforming Mass Incarceration and the Role of Business” with Professor Phillips. This feature of Wharton’s workshops is unique from Resilience Education’s other collaborations.

In Phillips’ class, the MBA students learned about mass incarceration in America and the myriad challenges of reentry to society following release from prison. The class also examined how the business sector connects to the problems of reentry and recidivism.

Stable employment plays a crucial role in decreasing the likelihood that someone will end up back in prison, but, Phillips explains, structural barriers make it difficult for people with a criminal record to get jobs, loans, and housing. It’s not just a pervasive stigma against people with criminal records that make it hard to find stability after release — across the country, myriad laws block those with felony convictions from getting various work licenses, and even prohibit employers from hiring them.

This problem is compounded by the acute link between poverty and incarceration: The majority of those who end up in prison lack access to financial resources, education, and well-paying jobs prior to their conviction, Phillips says. “We’re focused on the problem of incarceration, but also, at its root, we’re dealing with inequality,” he says. Wharton student Shah said the course changed his perspective on the justice system: “At first, I kept returning to my former viewpoint of thinking: ‘Well, if you did the crime, you’re doing the time’… but now I understand that the incarceration system is so much more nuanced than that.”

Resilience Education’s workshops offer more than financial knowledge and business tips. The classes are structured similarly to a graduate business class: Incarcerated students are assigned case studies to read and discuss in class, and they work together to solve problems and think critically about complex concepts. “It’s often the only time in their day when they’re actually asked what they think,” Resilience Education’s director Tierney Fairchild says, explaining that the students build confidence in the classes, and so do the MBA facilitators.

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