Education Department Pushes for Alternatives to Criminal History Questions in College Admissions

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Education Department Pushes for Alternatives to Criminal History Questions in College Admissions

May 9, 2016

The U.S. Department of Education today urged America’s colleges and universities to remove barriers that can prevent the estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education, including considering the chilling effect of inquiring early in the application process whether prospective students have ever been arrested.

The Department made the recommendation in a new resource guide, 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 to support a holistic review of applicants.

“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said. “The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students. As nation we must work to make that commonplace. We must ensure that more people, including those who were involved in the criminal justice system in their past but paid their debt to society, have the chance at higher education opportunities that lead to successful, productive lives, and ultimately create stronger, safer communities.” 

“Too many Americans are denied opportunities to lead fulfilling and productive lives because of a past arrest or conviction - including opportunities to access a quality education," said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “Expanding access to higher education for justice-involved individuals can help them step out of the shadow of their pasts and embark on the path to a brighter future.  I commend the Department of Education for its commitment to expanding opportunities for returning citizens, and I look forward to continuing to work with them - and with our partners across the Obama Administration - to give every deserving American a meaningful and fair second chance.”

King made the announcement at UCLA, part of the University of California system, which does not inquire about criminal justice involvement on its admissions applications.

“I wholeheartedly support Secretary King’s ‘Beyond the Box’ initiative, and I believe 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. “The University of California represents opportunity, not punishment. UC campuses don’t ask applicants for admission to provide information about past criminal convictions, and our admissions directors see no need to do so.”

“Opportunity, hope, and second chances are integral to the American character," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “In Los Angeles, where I re-established an Office of Re-entry to assist men and women who were formerly incarcerated, we are making great strides toward ensuring those who have paid for their mistakes can fully rejoin our communities. I am pleased that the Department of Education is working to expand this mission to include access to higher education.”

Evidence suggests that requesting criminal justice information may deter potentially well-qualified applicants from enrolling in postsecondary education and training. 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.

Campus safety is absolutely paramount in this process. The Departments of Justice and Education remain committed to helping schools ensure a safe learning environment while also opening educational opportunities to citizens who may have been involved in the criminal justice system in the past. The resource guide released today includes a variety of recommendations on how institutions might consider campus safety and applicants’ criminal justice history without unduly discouraging or rejecting otherwise-qualified candidates. All postsecondary institutions that qualify for federal student financial aid are required by law to disclose campus crime statistics and security information, which is made available to the public through a searchable online database.

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. 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 resource guide mentions other 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.

Today’s announcement is another example of the Obama Administration’s commitment to expanding educational opportunity as a key part of efforts to reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities.

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. 

These initiatives are through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council and the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, the Administration has made great strides toward improving the life outcomes of Americans who may have come into contact with the justice system by increasing access to education, employment and housing. The release of the Beyond the Box resource guide for postsecondary institutions responds to recommendations put forth by the President’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which was designed to eliminate unnecessary barriers to giving justice-involved individuals a second chance.