Criminal History Question Removed from the Common Application

October 15, 2018 JIE Updates

by Kelley McKinney

The Common Application, the undergraduate admissions form accepted by over 800 institutions, asks for hundreds of pieces of information. But for many prospective students, a question hidden at the very end of the application, deep in the writing section, can render all the other ticked boxes meaningless: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?”

This question keeps many people from applying to college at all. One study found that potential applicants with felony convictions were 41.5 percent more likely to abandon their applications than those without such convictions. So it is significant that on August 7, the Common Application announced it would drop the question of criminal history beginning with the 2019- 2020 application.

Activists have long argued for removing the question, noting that applicants with convictions are rejected 12 to 13 percent more often than those without, and with research showing that nearly one in three Americans has been arrested by the age of 23, this decision affects tens of millions of people.

Opinion on the “Beyond the Box” campaign, as it is known, has been divided. When surveyed this spring, a majority of the Common Application’s members wanted to keep the criminal history question, citing demand from parents and safety concerns on campus. However, many studies suggest that crime decreases as education increases and that “whatever gains might exist in terms of campus safety may be outweighed by an increased risk of recidivism among those who are excluded.”

Even with this question removed, colleges can still ask about criminal history on supplemental forms, and a question regarding disciplinary incidents in high school remains. But these questions contain significant bias. Black K-12 students are far more likely to be disciplined than students of other races, and this statistic held true across many variables. Public, private, rich, poor, it doesn’t matter—black children are punished more frequently and more severely than their non-black peers.

To address these issues, Senator Brian Schatz has introduced a bill that would amend the Higher Education Act to encourage institutions to remove criminal history questions from the college admissions process. Perhaps recalling the current placement of the disciplinary question, the bill also recommends that institutions “inquire about criminal or juvenile justice history transparently, and clearly inform applications as early as possible in the process how to respond to the inquiry.”

Even if such a bill were to be passed, the problem of paying for college remains. American students currently hold 1.5 trillion dollars of debt, much of which will simply never be paid back, and the government can deny federal loans to students who have been incarcerated for a drug-related offense. “The idea of rehabilitation always existed uneasily with the punitive mission of incarceration,” explains Dan Berger in Public Books.  And if prison exists to punish, to completely remove people from society, then college, which is supposed to usher people into society as economically self-sufficient adults, is the institution with the real rehabilitative potential. But asking people to trade a life in prison for a life burdened by debt isn’t quite a fair bargain—it may not be prison, but it’s not quite freedom, either.

Kelley Deane McKinney is the communications manager at Public Books and Columbia University’s Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities.