New York Times weighs in on college applications and criminal records

BoxedOut.untitledThe 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.

Similar problems have faced people with records when they look for jobs, but progress on that front could be a model for reforming college admissions. Fourteen states and about 100 local governments have worked to minimize job discrimination by barring public — and, in many cases, private — employers from asking about criminal convictions until later in the application process, when the person has had a chance to prove his or her worthiness for the job.

Heightened concern on campuses about criminal records can be traced in part to the 1986 murder of Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old who was killed in her dormitory at Lehigh University. The killer did not have a criminal conviction record. Congress responded by passing the Clery Act in 1990, requiring schools to publicly report violence on campus.

The practice of collecting criminal history information on applications became common a decade ago, after questions about an applicant’s criminal convictions were added in 2006 to the Common Application, now used by nearly 500 colleges.

Many schools reacted by taking into account minor offenses like alcohol convictions by applicants, who are often asked to produce official rap sheets. These records can contain inaccurate information and show juvenile offenses that have been sealed by the courts — which means they should never be viewed publicly or used in such a process. Schools often fail to train their staff members in how to weigh criminal history information. As a result, people who check “yes” on the felony box can find themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque world where they are peppered with Inquisition-style questions and repeatedly asked to find documents that do not exist or are impossible to provide.

It is no surprise that many students would become discouraged.

A new study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group that focuses on alternatives to incarceration, suggests that many more people with convictions actually give up than complete the applications process. The study looks at the process at 60 of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York. It found that nearly two-thirds of applicants who checked “yes” in the felony box never completed the applications process.

By contrast, the 24 campuses of the City University of New York do not ask applicants about their criminal histories. Administrators insist that this has not posed a safety problem.

The study notes that “the power of label and stigma, which shapes the life experiences of people with criminal history records in 21st-century America, discourages many from trying to push open doors that seem locked tight.” It calls on the State University of New York and all colleges to exclude the criminal history question from applications and end the use of that information in admissions decisions.