It's the beginning of a new year and that means it is time for high school seniors to begin completing college applications. Increasingly, whether they get admitted will have nothing to do with their grades, their SAT scores, or their overall aptitude for college. They may end up getting denied admission to the college of their choice because of a criminal record.
Whether a person's past should continue to be held against them -- even after they have completed their sentence – has long been an issue of public debate. Some states hamper an ex-offenders' rehabilitation by denying them the ability to vote or to hold certain trade licenses.
The trend among colleges to use a person's criminal history against them in the admissions process is being perceived as a new civil rights issue because a college degree increases people's ability to obtain a job commensurate with their skills and abilities.
A survey by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) sent out a 59-page questionnaire in late 2009 to 3,248 institutions. Of those, 272 responded.
Á majority of the responding colleges (66 percent) collect criminal justice information, although not all of them consider it in their admissions. The survey found, "Private schools and four-year schools are more likely to collect and use such information than their public and two-year counterparts."
In most cases, colleges depend on applicants to self-disclose their criminal history.
"If it is discovered that an applicant has failed to disclose a criminal record there is an increased likelihood that the applicant will be denied admission or have their admission offer rescinded," according to report titled, The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered.
At the end of 2008, more than 100 million Americans had either been arrested or convicted of a crime, the study said. Another 2.3 million were in jails and prisons, giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The report by CCA notes that African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately hurt by the admissions policy because they are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
"Racial disparities have been documented in the processing of every type of crime, from juvenile delinquency to low-level misdemeanors to the imposition of the death penalty," the report stated. "So pervasive is the criminal justice system in the lives of Black men that more Black men have done prison time than have earned college degrees. Because racial bias occurs at every stage of the criminal justice system, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice."
It explained that the use of criminal records "has become a surrogate for race-based discrimination, serving the same function, albeit unintentionally, as the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws in earlier times." The report continued, "Hyper-aggressive law enforcement in low-income communities of color has led to the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos among those with criminal convictions. Excluding otherwise qualified applicants from attending college because of a criminal record has the effect of depriving large numbers of people of color from opportunities that form the core of the 'American Dream.'"
The move to consider criminal records originated from a concern for campus safety, especially in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting.
"While college campuses are not immune from crime, the data show that they are remarkably safe places compared to the community-at-large," the report observes. "This is particularly true for serious crimes that involve personal violence. Violent crime on campus is rare, and the few college students who are victims of such crimes are mostly victimized off-campus by strangers. The Virginia Tech incident, a tragic but aberrational event, was committed by a student who did not have a criminal record."
The report found that there is no measurable difference in the campus safety of colleges that examine a person's criminal past and those that don't.
"Our argument for eliminating the collection and use of [criminal histories] in admission decisions is in large part based on the absence of any empirical evidence showing that students with criminal records pose a safety risk on campus," the report said.
If colleges are determined to use the records, there are ways they can limit the adverse impact on applicants lives. For example, the colleges can limit disclosure to specific types of convictions, such as felonies, but not misdemeanors or infractions; convictions that occurred only within the last five years or only felonies committed after the applicant's nineteenth birthday.
Additionally, colleges can provide applicants with an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation. They can also remove barriers to admission for applicants still under some form of community supervision.
The push to get colleges not to consider criminal backgrounds in college admissions is an extension of "ban the box" movement to prevent employers from discriminating against ex-offenders. Even the American Bar Association (ABA) has passed a resolution calling for increased opportunities for people who got into trouble as juveniles.
Our communities – on-campus and off-campus -- will be safer if ex-offenders are effectively eased back into the society.
The report concluded, "Depriving people of access to higher education based on a criminal record does not make campuses safer; instead it undermines public safety by foreclosing an opportunity that has proven to be one of the most effective deterrents to recidivism."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.