Criminal Records and College Admissions

college admissions
By Ben Hartwig
16 April, 2019

Almost 20 million people in America planned to enroll in college in 2018, and of those 11 million were female, more than 8 million were male. About 6.7 million planned to attend a two-year program, and over 13 million planned to attend a four-year program.

Higher education is supposed to be a melting pot of colors and cultures, but there’s one group that has been discriminated against in recent years: those with criminal records. Yes, it’s ironic that something like getting caught with a little weed can keep you from going to college after we’ve had presidents who admit to smoking the stuff in school, but it’s the truth. Strangely, a new law in Europe may be helping to change all of that.

Many colleges require disclosure of arrests and convictions during the application process and may decide not to admit a student on the basis of that information. Consider that in light of the fact that nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record of some sort. It’s nearly impossible to carefully and deliberately sort through criminal records on that scale to determine who’s the safest candidate for college. And it’s hard for those with a minor arrest and conviction, say for something like trespassing or loitering, to make their case through a complex web of applications.

criminal records

Coming down hard on students

Schools like the University of South Florida have policies that automatically remove a student from the school of education if the student is arrested and doesn’t self-report the incident to administrators within 48 hours. Of course in the education field an arrest and/or conviction on certain grounds may disqualify a person for a teaching license or contact with children. The school requires certified copies of arrest and court records with applications to the school of education.

But the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights lobbied for the Common App to drop the topic of arrests and convictions from its admissions queries beginning in 2016 because, the group claimed, it discriminates against people of color. In fact, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons around the country, and many studies have shown that traditional practices like “stop and frisk” policing targeted minorities. Even in secondary schools, which frequently have a police officer present to assist with discipline, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. And a 2015 study of State University of New York applicants showed that two-thirds of students with criminal histories did not finish their college applications because the portion dealing with arrests and convictions was onerous.

Dropping criminal records requests

At least 600 colleges and universities across the country were using the Common App, which finally eliminated the question in 2018. But schools like Virginia Tech, which began asking applicants in 2007 about any violation of local, state, or federal law more serious than a minor motor vehicle offense, was one of several schools that claimed such questions would trigger more in depth discussion with the applicant and not outright disqualification.

About 100 colleges and universities had jump-started the process of removing such questions from admissions applications in 2016 when they signed on to the Fair Chance in Higher Education initiative promoted by the Obama administration’s Secretary of Education. This effort was prompted by a 2013 study that showed prison inmates who furthered their education while incarcerated were less likely to reoffend when released. Then, in 2018 several legislators sought to take the issue a step further by banning institutions from inquiring about criminal records at all.

background check

Common App abroad

How is Europe nudging this process along? The connection of college admissions to the new European law is obtuse, if interesting: the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which went into effect in May 2018, is a tough law that puts strict limits on digital information, or data, that businesses in Europe may collect on individuals. The law requires that businesses collect only that information that if germane to the transactions involving the individual it belongs to, and it requires high standards for data security. Under this law the British version of the Common App stopped inquiring about students’ criminal records due to the additional burden of collecting and keeping that data securely, as well as questions of its applicability to the learning process. The GDPR requirements apply to Europeans applying to American universities, as it creates a right to own data that crosses international borders.

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