Bob Barker, a 1965 Campbell graduate and longtime supporter and advocate for his alma mater, launched the Bob Barker Foundation in 2009 to fund programs to reduce recidivism in North Carolina and nationwide. He was instrumental in starting the program in Sampson County.

It’s a true rags-to-riches story — one the students in the Sampson program have pointed to as a source of inspiration.

Estimated cost (per year) to incarcerate one person in North Carolina

Bob and Pat Barker launched the Bob Barker Company Foundation in 2009 as a way of giving back to the industry that had provided them with so much. The Barkers’ focus from the beginning was lowering recidivism — and they saw prison education as a worthy cause. Like many, they saw the success of the Hudson Link effort in New York and wanted something similar in place in North Carolina.

“We’ve always sought out groups around the country, not just in North Carolina, that are working with inmates — many of them with limited funding and just a few volunteers — teaching inmates skills and helping them find employment and a good place to live when they’re released,” says Bob Barker. “We saw what [Hudson Link] was doing and how their program reduced recidivism to almost 0, and we thought, ‘Wow. Why can’t we do that in North Carolina?’ I began talking to people at Campbell to set up a program.”

Launching, developing and maintaining a program like this isn’t cheap. Bob Barker Company Foundation spent $50,000 to send a group from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to New York to study the program at Sing Sing. It gave Campbell University $100,000 to launch and help run it. Once running, education programs like Campbell’s cost, on average, less than $2,000 per inmate each year, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 study. Yet, they can save prisons roughly tens of thousands a year per inmate when you factor in reduced recidivism and the costs to re-incarcerate a man or woman in this country.

The first phase of Campbell’s prison teaching initiative ended with the commencement ceremony in August. Those 11 graduates have now moved on to courses toward their bachelor’s degree, and the next group of students have begun their journeys toward a two-year degree.

Estimated cost (per year) to incarcerate one person in North Carolina

According to Dr. Britt Davis, vice president for advancement at Campbell, nearly $500,000 was raised (in addition to the Barkers’ support) to fund the first few years of the program, and Davis and Assistant Vice President for Alumni Engagement Sarah Swain have advocated to the North Carolina General Assembly for state help. Davis says the state House and Senate were receptive to their meetings and presentations and have tentatively allocated $1 million in their respective budgets to help Campbell fund and expand the North Carolina Education in Prisons program.

Expansion will eventually mean similar programs in other North Carolina Prisons, according to Dr. Beth Rubin, dean of Adult & Online Education.

“The goal is to give this opportunity to as many incarcerated people in North Carolina as we can or as many as the system will allow,” Rubin says. “It’s a path that should be available broadly. I’d love to see us in five prisons in the next eight years. I think that’s doable. And then if you add an option for online education, well you can then reach every prison in the state.”

In his commencement speech to the 11 men in black robes that matched his own, Bob Barker pointed to himself as an example of how a college education can lead to bigger and better things. Getting his degree, he says, gave him more confidence in himself than anything he had done prior to that.

“I knew with a degree, I could compete with anybody. I could do anything,” Barker says. “You go to prison, and our society says, ‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ But we can change that attitude.”

He called the graduates “trailblazers.” Because of their leap of faith, he says, dozens and hundreds of other men and women have a chance to work toward the same thing in the coming years.

“Had you not succeeded,” he said, “I don’t think we would have gotten support [for future classes]. Be proud of the work you’ve done. A lot of people are counting on you.”