Students Are Fighting to Force Colleges to Stop Asking About Criminal Records

Students Are Fighting to Force Colleges to Stop Asking About Criminal Records

By John Surico

If you applied to college in the last few decades, there’s a good chance you used the Common Application—a standardized form now accepted by over 600 schools. It’s a simple way for colleges to streamline the admissions process, and for ambivalent teens to take a crack at multiple places simultaneously. Makes sense, right?

But since 2006, people applying to colleges across America have been asked a version of this question: Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?

Activist types have been going on about “banning the box” in employment for a while now—the “box” being the request for an applicant’s criminal history, which critics say inspires prejudice and hinders formerly incarcerated people from reentering the workforce. As criminal justice reform has gone mainstream in America, federal agencies, states, and local municipalities have begun banning the box from their employment practices, making it illegal for public, and sometimes private, companies to include it on their job applications. (That doesn’t mean employers can’t still conduct background checks.)

But the box is still a fact of life in college admissions, even if some schools suppress the responses. And at least one of America’s most highly coveted schools is taking fire for the intimidating line of questioning: New York University.

In late March, dozens of current and former NYU students occupied the school’s student center for 33 hours, demanding that the Common App and their school “abolish the box” from admissions. According to the activists, the administration threatened disciplinary action for trespassing if they didn’t leave—and barred them from using the bathroom overnight. Still, the two parties eventually came to an agreement: The students would meet with Common App officials the next week, and they’re now set to meet with NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, sometime before graduation in May.

In some countries, the criminal history question wouldn’t affect too many people. But this is America: There were as many citizens who had college diplomas as had rap sheets last year, and in parts of the nation, there are more people shipping off to jail or prison than going to two- or four-year degree programs. Over the past few decades, the United States has built more correctional centers than universities, and perhaps most importantly, a wildly disproportionate share of people with criminal records are black or Latino.

The day after the NYU students met with Common App officials, I spoke with members of IEC, or the Incarceration to Education Coalition, which started in 2015 as a way for formerly incarcerated students at the school to have a voice. The group boasts a long list of backers on its website, and organized the occupation—as well as the talks with Common App, which it recorded.

“They were basically like, ‘We put it on because everybody in the country was really scared of school shootings,’ which really have no connection to the box,” Eric Sturm, a recent NYU alumnus and member of IEC, recalls.

Indeed, proponents of the initial background check on applications tend to argue public safety on campus is a factor in their decision-making process. And in an era where mass shootings are a fact of public life, that seems pretty reasonable.

The problem is there doesn’t appear to be any empirical evidence to support vetting college kids for their criminal history.

“A 2007 study found no significant difference in the campus crime rate at schools that did background checks versus schools that didn’t,” Keri Blakinger, a formerly incarcerated journalist, wrote in the Washington Post last year. “Similarly, a 2013 study showed that background checks did not accurately predict students likely to commit crimes on campus.

“In fact, one of the worst campus tragedies in recent history—the Virginia Tech shooting—was committed by a man with no criminal record,” Blakinger continued. (Common App officials did not seem to be aware of this when they met with NYU students.)

Activists suspect the box may be even more detrimental to people applying for college than for jobs, since there’s no face-to-face meeting on initial college apps. This has real consequences: One study by the Center for Community Alternatives, conducted within the State University of New York (SUNY) system, found that nearly two thirds of students who checked the box for felonies never completed the college application, possibly out of fear of retribution.

So it’s not just about colleges rejecting formerly incarcerated students who apply, but scaring them out of trying at all.

Sheba Rivera, a member of IEC and first-year student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, says she applied there partly because it was one of the only two programs at the university that doesn’t have a box on its application. While previously applying for a vocational course online, Rivera—who’s 31 and has been incarcerated before—says she was told by administrators that she probably wouldn’t get in if she checked the box. The admissions process, she says, was “traumatic.”

“I had to get additional references from my probation officer, as well as documents that referred to any previous criminal record,” Rivera tells me. “The whole point was that I was looking to go past that, and a lot of the message I was receiving was, ‘Well, you can’t! This is what we’re going to look at for the rest of your life.’ I understood why there was a lot of people who chose not to get more education, and think that they don’t have a life outside of crime.”

According to the audio recorded by students, the members of the Common App board admitted they hadn’t done sufficient research before including the box on the application, instead asking its member colleges if they wanted one. The board officials then revived a call for more research.

“We have been in conversations with members about these questions and topics for many months, and our role and our goal is to provide the information, the data, the research that will help each and all of our members make the best decision for their individual campus,” a Common App spokesperson said in a statement.

Officials at NYU have also said previously that this is their main concern; in January, the university wrote a letter to Common App officials, against IEC’s wishes, saying they wanted to see data. Last week, Matt Nagel, the school’s director of public affairs, reiterated that notion in a statement to VICE.

“NYU takes the IEC’s views seriously, we believe they are posing valid questions, and senior NYU administrators have met with them repeatedly,” he writes. “But, as we understand it, the IEC wants NYU to eliminate the box now, before any objective research has been conducted. As we have told the IEC repeatedly, we think that’s the wrong order if we’re going to make the right decision and if we hope to have needed support from other institutions.”

Following a new city law, the school has already ditched the box in its employment practices, leaving behind what organizers see as a weird disconnect. According to NYU’s website, the school receives about 50 to 80 applicants who checked the “box” on its application each year (each freshman class apparently tends to include five or ten). Starting this academic year, the administration says the university’s admissions board is not checking to see if the box has been marked off by an applicant until after the initial review.

But members of IEC believe that move doesn’t go far enough, and that the box inherently holds sway in the decision-making process.

“The only reason I even thought that I’d have a chance to go back to school were people with criminal backgrounds who let me know that everybody has a misstep, and to not to follow the belief that you can’t do anything with your life,” Rivera says. “And to understand that you have a unique perspective—that’s something that schools, colleges, and employers may be looking for. They taught me how to market, and value, myself.

“So my message to the Common App would be: We really can’t do this work alone.”

Follow John on Twitter.