Ending Crime Checkbox for College Praised by Inmate Advocates

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Photo by Yosearch India via Flickr

This fall, for the first time since 2006, students using the Common Application to apply to college will not need to check a box asking if they have criminal histories.

Accepted by over 700 colleges and universities worldwide, the Common App is the country’s most broadly used college application. The change comes following a 10-year campaign to “Ban the Box” by a broad coalition of advocates who claim that the question creates “an undue barrier that harms certain groups of students.”

In a press release, the New York-based nonprofit College & Community Fellowship said that the decision to ban the box “will have tremendously positive effects for college applicants with justice histories, and for colleges that seek to serve increasingly diverse student bodies.”

The criminal history question had not been demonstrated to meaningfully improve campus safety, and many accounts suggested that it deterred those who had been involved in the justice system from seeking higher education upon release.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education quoted one student with a criminal history who considered applying to a top-tier university: “I started the application process right away, but stopped in my tracks when I encountered the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? I thought to myself, ‘Why apply? They are just going to reject me.’”

A study conducted by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition found that for every student rejected by SUNY application committees because of a prior felony conviction, 15 did not complete their applications because they feared checking the box.

The Ban the Box coalition hopes that the Common App’s move will be the first step in a wave of institutional changes. Some colleges and universities still ask applicants to disclose their criminal histories, but most have no set procedure for following up with applicants, resulting in arbitrary admissions practices like requesting access to legally sealed documents and other unpredictable, ineffective criteria.

A Center for Community Alternatives study found that fewer than half of the schools that collect criminal justice background information have official policies in place regarding their usage of the information, and only 40 percent train staff on how to interpret such information.

Vivian Nixon, the Executive Director of College and Community Fellowship and a formerly incarcerated receiver of college reentry services, said, “Upon my release from the criminal justice system, I found myself forced to constantly explain my mistakes as I faced questions about my criminal history on job, housing, and even college admissions applications.”

She added, in a press statement on the decision: “These checkboxes asking me to disclose weren’t just an annoyance – they threatened to derail my success and keep me from being the engaged citizen I longed to be.”

We congratulate the College Board, and look forward to a future where justice and safety are evidence-based, rather than stigma-informed.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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