Don’t ask college applicants if they have a criminal record, advises the U.S. Department of Education in Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals.
“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a speech at UCLA, which doesn’t screen applicants for a criminal record. “The college admissions process . . . should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students,” he said. That includes “those involved with the criminal justice system.”
Applicants for federal jobs aren’t asked about a criminal record in the initial screening and the Obama administration is pressuring employers to “ban the box.”
“There are better ways to ensure campus safety than stigmatizing those who are trying to better their lives through higher education,” University of California President Janet Napolitano said.
“Campus safety is absolutely paramount in this process,” declares a Department of Education press release. Campuses that screen for criminal justice history don’t seem to be any safer than those that don’t, according to the DoE, but there’s little research on the issue.
When college applicants have to admit and explain their criminal record, many just give up, according to Beyond the Box. A study found 62.5 percent of State University of New York applicants who checked the box for a prior felony conviction never completed their applications, compared with 21 percent of applicants with no criminal history.
The report recommends “delaying the request for – or consideration of – criminal justice involvement until after an admission decision has been made to avoid a chilling effect on potential applicants whose backgrounds may ultimately be deemed irrelevant.”
In addition, the report calls for offering counseling, peer mentors, college coaches, jobs and support groups for “justice-involved students.”
Last July, the Education Department announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program to test new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue a postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around. In November, the Department also announced up to $8 million in Adult Reentry Education Grants to support educational attainment and reentry success for individuals who have been incarcerated.
The Common App, used by more than 600 colleges, asks about misdemeanor or felony convictions, but no longer will ask about other crimes.
“Students of color are the most likely to be harmed by putting these questions on the application,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Most students with criminal records go to community colleges and other open-admissions public schools, she found.
I doubt that would change significantly if applications to selective universities were more welcoming. Most “justice-involved youth” are not on the honor roll. Adults coming out of prison, who may pose a danger to classmates, aren’t likely to be qualified for selective universities.