Columnist Razvan Sibii: Let people with prior convictions go to college

Published: 6/20/2022 4:03:00 PM

An estimated 70 million Americans have a criminal record. They’ve committed a crime sometime in their past and, when they’ve satisfied the terms of their sentence, the law declared them fit to retake their place in society.

Except that society is not convinced that the law is harsh enough, and it often tacks on additional punishments by denying people with a rap sheet access to the very resources that could help them stay out of trouble: housing, jobs and education.

The juncture at which institutions screen out people with criminal records is the application form, which often requires people to check a box if they’ve ever had a run-in with the justice system. For those who check that box, the chance to improve their career prospects vanishes as soon as the hiring authority decides that their existing assets and potential for learning are not worth the safety risk.

A decadeslong “Ban the Box” campaign has convinced dozens of states and the federal government to pass laws preventing employers from considering an applicant’s criminal record until after assessing their qualifications and extending a conditional job offer.

The logic of the delay is that once the employer has met the applicant in person and has then told them they’re hired, the employer will be more open to the applicant’s explanation of the context in which they committed their past crime and the various ways in which they have since been rehabilitated.

Since 2010, Massachusetts has prohibited employers from inquiring about one’s criminal history at the job application stage.

The fight to ban the box, though, is considerably more advanced in the job market than it is in higher education. Roughly 70% of all colleges and universities still use application forms that ask prospective students about their criminal record. The actual phrasing of the question varies (arrests? convictions? misdemeanors? felonies? juvenile offenses? sex crimes? violent crimes? “other crimes”? etc.), as does its timing (in the application form, or later in the evaluation process).

The most invoked reason for The Question is safety. “What if we admit a student previously convicted of a violent crime and he later ends up assaulting another student?” The concern is, of course, legitimate. But studies have shown that schools that do not ask about previous convictions do not have more campus crime than schools that do ask about them.

Sometimes, colleges require background checks because some of their majors are designed for students who will seek jobs in industries that disqualify people with criminal priors. However, those strict conditions are changing these days, and most industries now have review boards that can grant exceptions. Moreover, people’s paths to good jobs are not necessarily straight and predictable: a criminal justice major might not become a police officer, but rather an expert at a foundation.

Allowing the criminal justice system to make your admission decision for you means accepting its inequities, too: its disproportionate impact on people of color and poor people, its reliance on coerced guilty pleas deals, and so on.

Most importantly, countless studies have shown that access to education considerably reduces recidivism. As a 2017 Brookings Institution report put it, “excluding applicants with prior convictions likely makes society less safe as a whole, even if it shifts some risk off-campus.”

But, assuming that the admission officer does not reject an application at the first sight of a checked criminal history box, what’s the harm in asking the question? For starters, research shows that bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is still a problem in admissions. Research also shows that the mere presence of the box discourages people with prior convictions from completing an application, thus robbing colleges of the chance to evaluate potentially strong candidates.

Given our area’s density of higher education institutions, as well as its fondness for social justice, I figured I’d check where the local colleges are when it comes to The Question. Here’s what I learned:

■UMass Amherst does have the question on its application, but promises that the applicant’s answer will not be considered until after the admission decision has been made. A separate evaluation, which gives the prospective student a chance to explain, will then be undertaken.

■Smith College relies on the Common Application (as well as the rival Coalition Application) in its admission process. In 2019, the Common App dropped its criminal history question. It retains a question about high school “disciplinary violations.”

■Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College generally do not collect criminal history information in their applications. Some programs, however, do require background checks because of expected licensing hurdles.

■Westfield State does collect criminal history information. When relevant, they seek additional information from the student. If they decide to reject an application because of safety concerns, they will inform the student, and will advise them on what they might do to gain admission in the future.

■Mt. Holyoke College, Hampshire College, Amherst College, Western New England University, and Elms College did not respond to my requests for information. Springfield College declined to answer my questions.

Of the colleges that answered my inquiries, none seem to engage in the egregious practice of asking The Question only to deny admission to people with previous criminal convictions without ever giving them the chance to show that they are not a security threat. That is good to see. As for those that do retain the box, I hope that they’ll continue to follow the research on this issue, and move, however cautiously, toward bringing in the people who could most benefit from the social mobility that a college education still provides.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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