Should schools ask about applicants' criminal records?

Could be unfair to minority students who already face more arrests, group argues

An advocacy group is arguing that asking individuals to disclose criminal records on college applications can lead to discrimination against minority applicants, Stephanie Saul reports for the New York Times.

A 2010 study by the Center for Community Alternatives found that 66% of colleges ask applicants about their criminal records, with some viewing even misdemeanor arrests unfavorably.

The Common Application does not ask about arrests but does require students to denote whether they have been convicted of a crime or faced serious disciplinary action in school.

According to the advocacy group Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 17 universities in the South include in their admissions applications broad questions about any contact with the legal system or police.

At Auburn University in Alabama, applicants are asked if they have been charged with a crime. Those who check "yes," regardless of whether they have been convicted, are contacted by the admissions office for additional information. Auburn spokesperson Charles Martin says indicating "yes" does not disqualify applicants.

Virginia Tech has a similar question on its application, which a university spokesperson says was added after the 2007 mass shooting that killed 32 people and wounded 17 others.

The University of Alabama asks applicants if they are "subject to arrest" and also asks if they have ever received written or oral warnings for trespassing. University spokesperson Chris Bryant says such questions were added in 2010 to determine students' potential safety risk, but adds that answering "yes" would not necessarily bar prospective students from admission.

Concerns about access for minority students

In the midst of growing concerns about treatment of black youth, the Lawyers' Committee is investigating the 17 southern schools that inquire about applicants' criminal records as part of a national initiative aimed at reducing the effect of criminal histories on higher education admissions.

The group argues that such questions target minorities, who are already more subject to arrest and could therefore have more difficulty gaining admission. However, the schools under investigation include several historically black colleges and universities.

"The disparities and underrepresentation we see at schools is a concern, and this may indeed be one of the contributing factors," says Lawyers' Committee Executive Director Kristen Clarke, noting the low  enrollment of black students at some of the colleges. 

VP seeks evidence that the questions work

New York University's VP for enrollment management, MJ Knoll-Finn, wrote a letter to the chair and chief executive of the Common Application last Wednesday requesting an expedited review of the fairness and necessity of criminal record questions on applications.

Knoll-Finn noted that people of color face higher rates of both discipline in K-12 education and incarceration. Given this context, Knoll-Finn wondered if the questions "have any predictive value" and whether they run contrary to universities' mission of access and social mobility (Saul, New York Times, 1/28).

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