Screening College Applicants with Criminal Records!

Dear Commons Community,

A New York Times editorial this morning raises an important issue regarding screening college applicants who have criminal records. Referring to recent statements from President Obama, the editorial makes several important points:

“The Obama administration is rightly urging colleges and universities to re-evaluate how they use criminal-record information in admissions decisions. By asking about criminal convictions on their applications, the schools discourage applicants who are capable of performing academically at college and who present no danger to campus safety. The remedy is to stop asking about these records or at least delay the question until the applicant has received a provisional offer of acceptance.

Research suggests that colleges that admit students with criminal histories are no less safe than others. This makes sense because campus crimes are typically committed by outsiders — or by students who do not have criminal records. Yet colleges have reacted hysterically to a handful of high-profile crimes in recent decades by trying to screen out applicants with criminal convictions.

This screening became easier in 2006, when the Common Application, now used by more than 600 schools, added questions about criminal convictions and even disciplinary records. In addition to excluding people for minor offenses, some colleges did so for disciplinary violations as far back as ninth grade that led to probation, suspension or expulsion. This especially hurts minority students, who are disproportionately — and unjustifiably — subjected to those penalties or arrested in cases of nonviolent offenses that should have been handled at the principal’s office.

A study last year by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group that focuses on alternatives to imprisonment, showed clearly that the criminal-conviction question discourages people from attending college. The study, which looked at 60 of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York, found that nearly two-thirds of applicants who answered “yes” to the felony question never completed the application process. The City University of New York, with 24 campuses, does not ask the question, and says this approach has posed no safety problem.

The Obama administration has taken several steps to combat discrimination against the more than 70 million Americans with criminal records. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bars employers from automatically denying jobs to people based on arrests or conviction records. The commission explained that employers needed to take into account the seriousness of the offense, when it had occurred and whether it was relevant to the job. The federal government has also warned landlords that blanket bans on renting to people with criminal convictions violate the Fair Housing Act.”

I believe that college policy makers will continue to be careful about how they approach this issue. While President Obama has good intentions, student safety and security has risen high on the lists of priorities for most colleges and especially those that provide on-campus housing.


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