Should colleges be asking applicants about their criminal record?

College Admissions Process Is Almost Impossible For Poorer Kids
College Admissions Process Is Almost Impossible For Poorer Kids

Alongside what sports you played and how well you did in chemistry, a number of university applications also want to know if you've ever committed a crime. If you check "yes," you'll almost certainly get extra scrutiny, and you could get a flat-out no. But, a new advocacy group is leading the charge to ban that question, arguing that it's discriminatory.

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Advocacy group the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law says the question is often used as a way to keep minorities out. It's currently turned its attention to 17 universities in the southern states whose applications feature questions about arrests and criminal records. The advocacy group believes the questions the sheer presence of these questions can discourage a student from even filling out an application. According to the New York Times, the south is an area of focus because of the disparity in size between black student populations and black general populations.

"The disparities and underrepresentation we see at schools is a concern, and this may indeed be one of the contributing factors," said Kristen Clarke, the group's executive director, citing statistics showing low black enrollment at some of the colleges. At Auburn, for example, African-Americans make up 7 percent of the student body in a state where blacks total about 25 percent of the population.

But it's not just southern schools. There are 600 schools that use the Common Application, including institutions like NYU, Emory, Dartmouth, Brown, and other prominent schools. This boilerplate application has two "yes" or "no" box students are required to check. One asks if a student has ever been subject to serious disciplinary action in school, and the other asks if they've ever been convicted of a crime, even a misdemeanor. Vice president for enrollment management at NYU MJ Knoll-Finn wrote a letter to the people behind the common app asking if these questions are really necessary:

Especially in the context of high rates of school discipline and incarceration among people of color, it seems vital to pose two questions about the checkboxes: Do they, in fact, have any predictive value, and does their presence work against universities' mission as engines of social mobility and diversity either by discouraging applicants or by resulting in unjustified denials of admissions on the grounds of safety or integrity?

If a student says yes, he or she could be completely counted out of getting into the school they're applying to, even if they're a straight A student with perfect test scores. So is that really necessary? Probably not.

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Last week, Harvard released a report on college admissions, calling for changes in a number of areas. It suggests that test scores be de-emphasized, and a greater focus be placed on students' engagement within their communities and families. It asks that admissions processes "reward those who demonstrate true citizenship, deflate undue academic performance pressure, and redefine achievement in ways that create greater equity and access for economically diverse students." It's been co-signed by admissions officers from MIT, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and more.

There are a number of questions being asked right now by academic powers that be: How should colleges be screening applicants? What really matters in an application? Should involvement in a church youth group matter more than SAT scores? What about that kid with lower grades who also cares for an ailing parent? Should we admit a a kid who's been picked up for petty crimes like say, trespassing or truancy?

And while efforts like this might not have an immediate effect on the status quo of college admissions, it reflects a broader shift in ideology that could affect change in the long term.

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