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scales of justice and gavel
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Published: 09 August 2018

On Aug. 9, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) announced an important victory in its work to remove the criminal history question from the standardized college application form used by more than 700 colleges and universities across the country.  This week, the Common application announced that it is striking the criminal history question from its standardized form.

“No student should be automatically disqualified or from seeking access to higher educational opportunity based on their criminal history,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “Because racial disparities infect virtually every stage of our criminal justice system, questions regarding criminal history have an unjustified impact on minority applicants. The Common Application has taken one step in the right direction by eliminating a barrier that significantly impaired access to higher education for justice-involved individuals."  

Since 2016, the Lawyers' Committee has called for The Common Application, Inc., a nonprofit organization that issues a standardized college application form used by more than 700 colleges across the country, to terminate use of questions concerning college applicants’ criminal records. These questions have a discriminatory effect on African American, Latino, and other minority applicants because of the racially disparate treatment that permeates the criminal justice system.  The Common Application's criminal question had asked: "Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?" 

Clarke continued, "This is an important first step. However, we urge Common Application to go further by striking questions concerning high school disciplinary history and juvenile justice backgrounds. The school to prison pipeline is part of our political reality in this country and questions regarding high school discipline inevitably have a starker impact on African American, Latino and other applicants of color.”

Roughly 100 million Americans have some form of criminal record. Black youth make up 35 percent of juveniles arrested, despite amounting for only 17 percent of their age group. The same disparities plague school disciplinary actions: Since the 1970s, the racial gap in suspension rates has steadily grown wider so that today black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended than white students.  The deterrent effect of questions regarding criminal history is notable. A 2015 study by Center for Community Alternatives study found that two-thirds of individuals with felony convictions who started applications for admission to State University of New York schools did not complete the application process because of the burdensome process tied to detailing their convictions. 

Clarke closed by noting that "individual schools should follow the lead of the Common Application and eliminate consideration of criminal history." Last year, schools such as New York University announced that hat they would ignore the Common Application’s checkbox questions about criminal and disciplinary history.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is committed to promoting fair and educationally sound policies and addressing barriers faced by people who have had police contact or have been referred to the criminal justice or juvenile justice systems. Individuals who believe that they have been denied or discouraged from pursuing educational opportunities at colleges and universities because of inquiries into stops, arrests and detentions in the admissions process can contact help@lawyerscommittee.org.

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