Dept. of Ed: Don’t Ask Questions about Past Arrests, Convictions During College Application Process

U.S. Department of Education says delaying the request for information on criminal justice involvement until after an admission decision has been made will encourage more individuals trying to turn their lives around to apply for college.

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Monday that it is urging America’s institutions of higher education to not ask prospective students during the initial phase of the admission process about their past run-ins with the law. The department says that inquiring early in the application process whether prospective students have ever been arrested could have a chilling effect on individuals with criminal records from getting a college education.

The recommendation is being made in Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, which encourages alternatives to inquiring about criminal histories during college admissions and provides recommendations the department says support a holistic review of applicants.

“Evidence suggests that requesting criminal justice information may deter potentially well-qualified applicants from enrolling in postsecondary education and training,” claims a Department of Education press release. “For example, a 2015 Center for Community Alternatives study showed that two-thirds of individuals with felony convictions who started applications for admission to State University of New York schools never finished the application process – in part to the onerous requirements for detailing their convictions. By contrast, the attrition rate on applications for all applicants was only 21 percent.”

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr adds that campus safety is absolutely paramount in admissions and that issues relating to things like where a student will be housed should be addressed at some point… just not in the initial application process.

“A question about a particular matter might be asked later in the process after students have gone through the regular admissions review,” he said during a press conference.

University of California President Janet Napolitano commented about her system’s admission process, which does not inquire about criminal justice involvement on its admissions applications.

“Once students are admitted, there is a whole process that takes place in respect to [past criminal arrests or convictions],” she said.

“Some of the nation’s largest colleges and university systems do not collect criminal justice information as part of the application process, while others like New York University review past criminal involvement only after preliminary admissions decisions have been made,” the department claims. “Possibly because of the chilling effect from these questions in the admissions process, limited data and research exists about the potential links between criminal justice history and campus safety. However, the research that does exist suggests that colleges and universities that admit students with a criminal justice history have no greater crime than those that do not.”

The department’s new resource guide offers some promising practices and recommendations, including:

  • 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 by the institution;
  • Transparently and clearly informing potential students as early as possible in the application process on how to respond to the inquiry about criminal pasts;
  • Ensuring that the questions are narrowly focused, avoiding overly broad requests about criminal history;
  • Giving all prospective students the opportunity to explain criminal justice involvement and preparedness for postsecondary study; and,
  • Providing admissions personnel and counselors training on the effective use of criminal history data.

In addition, the report offers strategies for ensuring postsecondary persistence and completion for admitted students, among them:

  • Providing well-informed academic and career guidance;
  • Informing students of available support services;
  • Recruiting peer mentors and college coaches to work with justice-involved students;
  • Supporting student groups for justice-involved youths;
  • Providing justice-involved students access to meaningful work opportunities;
  • Incorporating student feedback when determining support services for justice-involved students;
  • Offering justice-involved individuals financial aid counseling; and,
  • Establishing partnerships with the community.

The report recommends a self-assessment for colleges and universities where the institutions determine whether criminal history information is necessary for admissions, and if so, ensure that staff are trained on how to review criminal justice information.

The report does not mention how or if campuses should work with parole officers in managing individuals who have recently been released from prison. It also does not provide guidance on how campus public safety administrators should be involved in the process, nor does it discuss a possible increase in resources for counselors and social service professionals whose positions were cut back drastically during the Great Recession.

Read Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals.

Photo: Thinkstock


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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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