On September 14, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), the nation’s largest comprehensive university system, voted to ban the box in its admissions process. It is the first university system in the country to reverse its decision to engage in criminal history screening and remove the question from its admissions application.
The resolution laying out the policy change references the advocacy of the Education From the Inside Out (EIO) Coalition, including a 2015 case study of SUNY conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition.” That study found that about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 SUNY applicants who disclose a felony conviction each year do not complete the application process (compared to only 21 percent of the overall pool of applicants) and thus are never considered for admission. It concluded that this is the result of the daunting – and sometimes impossible – supplemental process triggered by that disclosure as well as the stigmatizing nature of the inquiry itself.
The following piece was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the US criminal justice system. Even though criminal records and school disciplinary records are entirely distinct, they both pose similar, often unjust, obstacles to higher education. Consideration of both types of records in the admissions process can have the troubling effect of excluding qualified and motivated young people — particularly those from minority communities — from America’s colleges and universities because of past mistakes that have little to do with academic potential or the protection of public safety.
The story is familiar: a high school student grabs another student’s iPhone at lunch and tries to sell it. He is caught, arrested, and booked into juvenile hall. He is also suspended. If universities and colleges follow the recent recommendation of the Obama administration, colleges will not consider the student’s criminal record in the initial stages of the admissions process. These recommendations, contained in a recently released “Dear Colleague” letter by Education Secretary John B. King, represent a significant step in removing barriers to education for people with criminal records. And just this week, over a dozen colleges and universities signed on to the White House’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge.
Unfortunately, the letter and the pledge are silent about another common question on college applications: Have you ever been suspended or expelled from school? For the teenager who stole the phone, this means that while his criminal record may not ruin his chance to be admitted to college, his school disciplinary record just might.
More than 3 million students are either suspended or expelled from schools each year and when they are, a discipline record is generated. While the barriers created by criminal records have begun to receive much-needed attention, the barriers created by school discipline records have been largely overlooked. The Department of Education report that accompanies King’s letter mentions school records only in passing, without taking a firm position. Like criminal records, school discipline records can, and do, jeopardize young people’s chances to succeed. Like criminal records, school records are a scarlet letter.
The Department of Education (DOE) is asking colleges and universities to reconsider the use of criminal record inquiries on admissions applications in a new report released on Monday. The report, Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, looks at how broad inquiries into applicants’ criminal histories may deter people with criminal records from applying for post-secondary educational opportunities. It also suggests steps schools can take to ensure that their admission processes promote second chances for qualified applicants with criminal records, including banning the box on initial applications.
According to the report, “A survey of postsecondary institutions found that 66 percent of them collect CJI [criminal justice information] for all prospective students, and another 5 percent request CJI only for some students.” The Common Application, a uniform application used by nearly 700 schools, has since 2006 asked whether a person has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, “or other crime.” Some schools that use the Common Application allow applicants to opt out of disclosure, or delay criminal history inquiries until a preliminary admissions decision has been made. Other schools use their own non-standard applications which may require disclosure of convictions, arrests, or mere allegations of misconduct.
The New York Times has published an editorial about the recently issued report of the Center for Community Alternatives on the deterrent effect of questions about criminal records on applications for admission to the State University of New York. (See the piece about the report “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Attrition” by CCA Director Alan Rosenthal published in this space 10 days ago.) The editorial notes that the 24 campuses of the CUNY system do not include “the box” asking about criminal record on their application forms and have reported no safety issues as a result. Perhaps this will be one of those rare cases where effective public advocacy highlighted in editorial pages will actually have a concrete result.
Last week was an exciting one for proponents of the expansion of college opportunities for people who are currently incarcerated or who have criminal records. Two reports were released that propose strategies to break the cycle of recidivism, promote public safety, and de-escalate mass incarceration by opening up post-secondary educational opportunities. It is fitting that both reports come at a time when America is reflecting on the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, fifty years ago, and envisioning where the momentum of Black Lives Matter will take us. It is the intersection of an historic civil rights struggle, the human rights movement that confronts “mass criminalization” and the racial divide in the U.S. today.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law issued a report from the Renewing Communities Initiative, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians. It was released just days after the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition), issued its report, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition, the subject of an earlier post on March 4, 2015.
Last week the Center for Community Alternatives in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition released Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition. With this new study and report we build upon our 2010 study, The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered. The Reconsidered study showed that a growing number of colleges and universities are asking about criminal history information during the application process: two-thirds of the colleges and universities we surveyed reported that they do so. Yet, as we discussed in the Reconsidered study, there is no empirical evidence to indicate that criminal history screening makes college campuses any safer.
Expulsion or suspension from school, not surprisingly, does not bode well for academic success. Students are much less likely to graduate when they miss significant time in school or have to change schools because they have been suspended or expelled.
Incidents at school can have other serious and lasting consequences. In Wisconsin, because 17-year-olds are considered adults when charged with criminal violations, high school students can face probation, jail, or prison, as well as all the adverse collateral consequences associated with a criminal record. One serious consequence unique to students is that alleged misconduct in school can also result in a suspension or expulsion from school.
Eisha Jain, a fellow at Georgetown Law Center, has posted on SSRN an important and (to us) alarming article about the extent to which mere arrests are beginning to play the same kind of screening role outside the criminal justice system as convictions. In “Arrests as Regulation,” to be published in the Stanford Law Review in the spring, Jain argues that arrests are increasingly being used systematically as a sorting and screening tool by noncriminal actors (including immigration authorities, landlords, employers, schools and child welfare agencies), not because they are the best tool but because they are easy and inexpensive to access.
The New York Times this morning describes data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showing that African-American girls tend to face more serious school discipline than white girls. “For all the attention placed on problems that black boys face in terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.” Black girls who get in trouble at school are also more frequently referred to the criminal justice system, where they can incur a criminal record that sticks with them into adulthood.
The website of the Center for Community Alternatives announces this important development involving college admissions:
The campaign to eliminate barriers to higher education for people with criminal history records, led by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, is gaining traction. Less than a month ago, the New York Times Editorial Board called for colleges to remove the question about criminal records from college admissions applications. Today, the New York State’s Attorney General’s office announced a settlement with three colleges in New York state, that will end their practice of asking applicants if they have ever been arrested. The New York Times article about the settlement cites CCA’s study to support the Attorney General’s actions.
Link to the New York Times editorial.
Link to the New York Times article.
Link to the Attorney General’s Press Release.