Education secretary tells colleges to stop asking about applicants' criminal records

'Too many Americans are denied opportunities to lead fulfilling and productive lives because of a past arrest'

Secretary of Education John King Jr. on Monday asked university leaders to delay asking applicants about their criminal histories in hopes of encouraging more people to apply to college. 

A disproportionate number of people charged with crimes are minorities, and asking potential students' about their criminal pasts discourages them from completing the application—and seeking a degree, according to the Department of Education.

"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," says Attorney General Loretta 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." 

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The department is sending a guide, "Beyond the Box," to university and college presidents, along with a letter that encourages the leaders to "attract a diverse and qualified student body without creating unnecessary barriers for perspective students who have been involved with the justice systems."

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Sixty-six percent of colleges collect criminal history information from all applicants and 5% collect it from some, according to a federal report. In a 2015 study by the Center for Community Alternatives, researchers found two-thirds of people convicted of felonies who started State University of New York applications never finished them, partially due to questions about their convictions.

Kim Hunter Reed, deputy undersecretary of education, urges university leaders to delay—or completely nix—questions about applicants' criminal histories. While the federal government cannot enforce the proposal, officials say they hope leaders will implement the suggestion.

Legally, the FAFSA is required to ask students about criminal backgrounds, but "members of Congress are revisiting the question," Reed says.

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"We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness," King says. "We must ensure that more people ... have the chance at higher education opportunities" (Resmovits, Los Angeles Times, 5/9).

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