When Dan Geiter was 15 years old, he stole a few checks from the handbag of a faculty member at his high school. He forged them and cashed them, easily making a few bucks.
That landed him in jail for the first time.
Throughout his teenage years, Geiter continued to commit similar crimes of fraud and theft, with intermittent periods of time behind bars. Such was the pattern for the next 17 years of Geiter’s life.
One day, however, he decided he was done living a life of criminality.
“I was sitting in my cell, and it was about 108 [degrees] in the Shawnee National Forest that day. It was so hot the concrete cinder blocks were sweating,” Geiter told Business Insider. “I was thinking about all the things I could do if I were free.”
Once released in 1999, Geiter stayed true to his word; he has never been back in prison. But he soon learned the label he carries as a convicted felon tarnished many of his future opportunities.
“There is still a lifetime of incarceration even after you served your time, and you’ve paid back what supposedly is your debt to society,” he said.
Nearly two decades after Geiter was released from prison, however, he defied the odds and earned a doctoral degree in education, all while continuing to fight the stigma being an ex-felon carries. Now, with the help of a few non-profits, he’s creating a college for those in a similar predicament.
‘The biggest discriminator against offenders’
Geiter relocated to Chicago, Illinois in 2007 in search of better employment opportunities and a fresh start. Immediately, he encountered difficulty finding a place to live.
“Statistically, 80% of all the housing in Chicago is off limits to individuals convicted of a felony, and they don’t discriminate on what type of felony,” he explained.
While the Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t publish statistics around ease of housing for ex-felons, that individuals around the US with felony convictions face incredible difficulty securing places to live has long been recorded.
Additionally, using criminal background as a reason to turn down applicants was legal until recently.
A new set of guidelines released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in April, however, have attempted to make denying applicants based on criminal history more difficult for landlords. Still, no guarantees exist that discrimination won’t occur.
In addition to being exempted from a majority of Chicago’s housing — and usually the most affordable options — Geiter also couldn’t find employment. He couldn’t, and to this day remains ineligible to, get a license to be a barber, become an athletic trainer, or hold a host of other minimum-wage jobs because of his record.
“The one job I was able to get was a dishwasher at Pizzeria Uno, and I was fired from that job on the second day I was working once my background check came back,” he said. "The biggest discriminator against offenders in the state of Illinois is actually the state of Illinois.“
Back in the classroom again
Desperate for improved job options, Geiter took a stab at school. He enrolled at Moraine Valley Community College and took an English class, his first time back in a formal classroom in nearly 25 years. He received an A, and his English professor encouraged him to continue with his degree.
A year later in 2009, Geiter completed his associate’s degree in English. Bolstered by the success, he transferred to Saint Xavier University to work toward a bachelor’s degree in English.
But life again caught up to Geiter. He started to consider withdrawing from school as the pressures of being a full-time student while dealing with extreme financial pressures mounted.
"I was being evicted from my house at this time, my power was off,” Geiter explained.
He received what some may describe as a bit of divine intervention in the form of Saint Xavier administrator Sister Sue Sanders.
Sanders, whom Geiter refers to as a mentor, found a donor who paid his rent and utilities for six months while Geiter finished his studies.
In 2011 he received his bachelor’s degree, moved on to the University of Chicago where he earned a master’s degree, and finally completed his education at Benedictine University with a doctoral degree in education.
His dissertation at Benedictine was on the arbitrary consequences that individuals face once they are released from prison.
“I haven’t had a felony conviction since 1997,” Geiter said. “I’ve been a good citizen, I’ve been a good parent, I’ve followed the rules. But even though I was released from prison in 1999, and I was released from parole in 2000, every day I suffer the same arbitrary consequences of a felony conviction as if I was just released yesterday.”
An ambitious plan
With this realization and the desire to help other people in his position, Geiter developed an ambitious plan: to form a college that helped similarly disadvantaged students.
The college has been the persistent work of Geiter for the last several years. He and some colleagues developed a nonprofit organization in 2013 called the Catalyst Education Research Center (CERC), which conducted research on the ways to improve educational outcomes in “historically marginalized” communities.
In 2015, CERC merged with another nonprofit organization based in Chicago, The Elijah Glenn Ward Family Ward Foundation, and Ward College was officially established.
“We decided to open an institution that would stand alone that would admit 40-to-50% of students as current and former offenders, and not only to deal with the issues of academics of those students, but to deal with the variant of social services that actually are the hindrance for students to complete and persist,” Geiter said.
The college, located on the South Side of Chicago, is set to open in January and admit its first cohort of 30 students, with the aim of increasing up to 500 students by June 2017.
Students will either enroll in a certificate program or an associate’s degree in liberal arts.
The certificate program, dubbed “earn and learn,” requires students to spend 20 hours in the field for work force development and 20 hours in the classroom each week. As a result, students will earn a weekly stipend and receive certificates in one of four programs: robotics, day care, construction, or paralegal.
The associate’s degree program will be 80% online and 20% in the classroom.
Ward College is set to receive a loan in the next few weeks but is also conducting additional fundraising. A GoFundMe page indicates that Ward College has currently raised about $5,000 of its $210,000 goal for supplemental costs.
Geiter’s push to improve access to a college degree for individuals with criminal histories mirrors similar efforts by the US Department of Education (ED).
In May, the department held a news conference urging colleges and universities to remove questions about criminal history from applications. Their recommendation stated that colleges should remove the barriers to higher education for the “estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records.”
Though the US contains just 5% of the world’s population, the country accounts for 20% of the global incarcerations — the most in the world.
After going from a felon to a PhD holder in a matter of decades, Geiter remains passionate about the power of education transform lives. As he collected degrees, he ushered in many more opportunities but rejects the assumption that he’s the exception to the rule.
“I am not an outlier; there are 100 Daniel Geiters out there that could get certificates, degrees, go on to become productive members of society if given the chance,” Geiter said.