Obama Administration Pushes for Change in How Colleges Consider Applicants With Criminal Records

Posted By Eliana Osborn on May 23, 2016 at 9:47 am
Obama Administration Pushes for Change in How Colleges Consider Applicants With Criminal Records

Ban the Box is an Obama administration initiative aiming to make it easier for released prisoners to find work. For many, the box is that dreaded question on a job application: have you ever been convicted of a felony? Often an employer will summarily reject a candidate based on just this answer, despite how long ago it was or how unrelated to the job at hand. The Fair Chance Business Pledge involves companies across the country who agree to save criminal history questions for later in the hiring process, as well as other policies.

The ‘box’ issue isn’t just for employment though, it also comes up for those applying to college. A newly released booklet from the Department of Education aims to help schools figure out ways to safely open enrollment to more ‘justice-involved individuals’ as they’ve termed it. Beyond the Box focuses on the 70 million Americans who’ve been part of the criminal justice system.

“It is critical to ensure that gateways to higher education, such as admissions practices, do not disproportionately disadvantage justice-involved individuals who have already served their time,” explains Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. Without access to educational opportunities, returning to prison is all too likely. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, 76.6% of individuals released from the justice system were rearrested within five years, with 56.7% being arrested in the first year after their release.

The issues involved with supporting these individuals are more than educational. Housing, finances, and continuing involvement with law enforcement personnel all require knowledgeable advisors. Part of Pell grant expansion opens the program to incarcerated individuals, previously ineligible for access to federal funds for education. The state of New York is trying to fund college at ten prisons in a move to prepare inmates for productive life after they are released and to reduce rates of recidivism.

The Department of Education doesn’t expect colleges and universities to accept students without regard for the well-being of their whole campus. Instead, the goal is for a holistic application, one that allows a fuller picture of a candidate than just basic information. In particular, juvenile criminal records would be considered in light of conduct in the time since.

A further concern is the well-documented racial bias of America’s criminal justice system. In secondary schools as well as courts, black and Hispanic youth are convicted at a higher rate and given more severe sentences than their white peers. Colleges, working towards inclusive and diverse campuses, must recognize the myriad factors involved in a potential student’s record.

Beyond the Box highlights the research and data about how the courts work and how young people are punished for their crimes. 66% of colleges and universities collect criminal justice information (CJI) for all students, and the document acknowledges both the need for such information in some circumstances and the drawbacks of background checks generally.

In a section titled “Promising Practices for Mitigating Barriers to Higher Education,” CJI is considered as a snapshot—one moment in the life of a complex individual. Additional information like academic record, recommendations, personal essay, or even an interview can give schools a better idea about a candidate.

Schools can protect themselves from equal opportunity violations by carefully considering what information to request and what the purpose is for it. For example, carefully asking about convictions rather than arrests is legal; overly broad questions are not. The Department of Education reminds that the vast majority of felony convictions in college applicants are not violent in nature, rather marijuana related.

There’s a lot of talk about changing the prison culture of America, especially concerning Americans of color. Part of that change must involve how inmates are treated after incarceration.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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