White House Launches Partnership to Boost Higher Education Access for Americans with Criminal Records

Posted By Derek Johnson on June 15, 2016 at 2:30 pm
White House Launches Partnership to Boost Higher Education Access for Americans with Criminal Records

This past Friday, the Obama administration launched the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, a partnership of 25 colleges and universities around the country that have agreed to give increased admissions consideration to the formerly incarcerated.

“Too often, a criminal record disqualifies Americans from being full participants in our society — even after they’ve already paid their debt to society,” wrote the White House in a press release announcing the partnership. “This includes admissions processes for educational institutions that can make it difficult if not impossible for those with criminal records to get an education that can lead to a job.”

Many top and well-known universities have signed on to the pledge, including powerhouse state schools like the University of California System, New York University and Boston University, as well as Ivy League institutions like Columbia and Cornell University. The pledge commits these universities to adopting “fair chance admissions practices” such as reducing the importance of criminal justice-related questions on admissions forms, encouraging professors and students to teach in local correctional institutions and offering jobs and internships to those with criminal records.

The partnership is part of a series of continuing efforts by the Obama administration to develop and promote policies to reduce recidivism and help transition and reintegrate citizens with criminal backgrounds into society. A corresponding pledge to break down similar stigmas in the private and non-profit sectors has over 100 signatories, including Coca-Cola, Google, Microsoft, Starbucks along with organizations like the ACLU, NAACP and the American Sustainable Business Council.

US long-criticized for large prison population

The United States has long been criticized for having the largest number of active prisoners in the world, with totals far higher than those of countries with much higher populations like China or India and exponentially higher rates than those of other industrialized western democracies. Sam Schaeffer, CEO of the Center for Employment Opportunities, applauded the action taken by the Obama administration and the higher education world, calling it “an important step towards providing more opportunity” for Americans with criminal backgrounds.

“More than 600,000 individuals return home each year from incarceration and many more Americans have some type of criminal conviction. Expanding opportunities for employment and education is essential not only for improving the lives of these citizens but strengthening the communities in which they live,” said Schaeffer in a statement to GoodCall.

The administration has also worked to reduce lengthy prison sentences for certain classes of criminals. In 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission recommended reducing prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, citing research showing that slightly shorter prison terms do not have a measurable impact on an offender’s likelihood of committing new crimes. A collaborative experimental pilot program was launched last year between the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to give incarcerated individuals access to federal Pell Grants.

Ivy Leagues, big name schools sign on to expand higher education access

Columbia University is among the schools who have signed on to the pledge and has for years helped oversee the Justice-In-Education initiative, a joint collaboration that emphasizes the role of education in the successful reentry of many former prisoners. In a release announcing their participation, Columbia officials framed the program as giving a second chance to marginalized populations.

“As an academic institution committed to inclusion and excellence, Columbia University has a particular responsibility to expand access to college education and employment for those who need a second chance and, more broadly, for those from communities bearing the brunt of mass incarceration.”

Cornell University also signed on to the pledge. Like many of the participants, Cornell has long run its own localized initiatives to work with inmates in New York correctional facilities. In an interview with The New York Times in 2013, former president David J. Skorton pushed back on the argument that they somehow unduly reward criminals for breaking the law.

“All of us need to stop thinking about education of incarcerated people as some sort of luxury that they don’t deserve,” Skorton said. “It’s in their interest, but it’s also in society’s interest.”

Higher education not a luxury, with benefits for society and individual

The initiative is being launched amidst a growing recognition by both major political parties that mass incarceration may be indirectly contributing to a host of societal ills, such as unemployment, income inequality, a decline in active fatherhood and various racial disparities. Over the past few decades, a growing body of research has shown a linkage between educational attainment in high school and college and lower rates of crime and recidivism, while some local nonprofits have had similar successes with work-based reformation programs. A 2014 study the by National Research Council found that anywhere from two-thirds to 75 percent of prisoners lack a high school degree at the time of their incarceration:

“Incarceration is strongly correlated with negative social and economic outcomes for former prisoners and their families. Men with a criminal record often experience reduced earnings and employment after prison. Fathers’ incarceration and family hardship, including housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children, are strongly related. The partners and children of prisoners are particularly likely to experience adverse outcomes if the men were positively involved with their families prior to incarceration.”

Most of the research on educational attainment and crime rates has focused on high school, since most current and former prisoners have yet to cross that barrier. However, the economic reality today is that finding a steady job with a high school degree is difficult even without a criminal background. That has led to worries among policymakers that former prisoners will be further left behind in the education arms race as a college degree becomes increasingly mandatory for a wide variety of jobs.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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