College Admissions To Exclude Criminal Records

Beyond the Box

The Department of Education’s “Beyond the Box” Campaign.

It appears that the “Ban the Box” movement against the use of some criminal records in hiring and employment decisions has officially targeted college admission applications that ask people questions about their criminal background.

Last week, the United States Department of Education announced their “Beyond the Box” campaign that is aimed at making it easier for people with criminal records to gain entrance into colleges and universities. There are currently more than 70 million U.S. citizens with some type of criminal offense on their record.

Having a criminal record can stop a person from being accepted into a college or university. In their proposal, the Department of Education refers to people with any sort of criminal record as “justice-involved individuals.”

Colleges and universities often ask admission questions about a person’s criminal background as part of their student selection procedures. Interest in people’s criminal records has grown over the past several years due to an increase in violence on college campuses.

On May 9th, 2016, the U.S. Secretary of Education publicly released a “Dear Colleague” letter to university administrators regarding the use of criminal records in their admissions procedures. The Education Secretary also released a guide called “Beyond the Box Resource Guide” that contains recommendations for increasing college and university admissions for people with certain criminal records.

One of the things that the guide advises admissions offices to do is to delay asking people questions about their criminal records until later in the selection process in order to avoid any “chilling effects” that these questions could have on applicants. One study has shown that about two thirds of people with felony convictions do not finish their college applications due to the criminal record questions.

Other suggestions for changes to higher education admission policies that the government’s Beyond the Box Resource Guide includes are:

  • Making sure that questions about criminal records are specific and not too general about an applicant’s criminal background.
  • Educating admissions staff on the acceptable uses of criminal information in the student selection process.
  • Allowing all applicants the chance to explain any criminal records from their past.
  • Providing information to applicants early on in the admissions process about best practices for answering questions about any criminal activity on their records.

Since the Department of Education’s “Beyond the Box” announcement last week, a number of colleges and universities have already stated publicly that they are reviewing their admissions applications for any questions that are overly ambiguous or intrusive regarding people’s criminal records.

In addition, “The Common Application”, which is a standardized admissions application that is used by over 600 colleges and universities in the United States, announced last week that they will change their criminal record questions so that they only ask about felonies and misdemeanors. The Common Application will no longer ask people general questions about other crimes they have been involved in.

About two thirds of colleges and universities require criminal record disclosures from all applicants. However, California’s public colleges and universities do not ask for any criminal background information from applicants in their admissions process.

The “Beyond the Box” announcement does not state that asking about criminal records on college applications is illegal, but it does use the heavy hand of government to pressure institutions of higher education from asking about these records. Additional news and information regarding the “Beyond the Box” effort can be found on social media sites with the hashtag #BEYONDTHEBOX.