The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging colleges to reconsider how they ask applicants about their criminal histories, suggesting questions about prior convictions or arrests may not be necessary or can be delayed.
In a letter sent to college and university leaders Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. cited a similar movement among businesses and the federal government to defer questions about criminal history in the hiring practice, noting that doing so can provide a second chance for those with a previous arrest record.
“The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students,” Mr. King said.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Mr. King detailed several of the reform suggestions that the Department of Education is promoting though release of a new guidebook on increasing access to college among those with criminal histories.
Among the suggestions highlighted, colleges can defer questions about criminal justice system involvement until later in the admissions process, narrow the scope of questions to only include recent criminal justice history, or make sure to give applicants the opportunity to explain any past criminal history.
The delay of inquiring about criminal history can “avoid a chilling effect on potential applicants whose [criminal justice information] may ultimately be deemed irrelevant by the institution,” according to the education guidebook.
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“There are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” Mr. King said.
The announcement of the new guide for colleges and universities was made Monday at UCLA, which is among 10 University of California campuses that does not inquire about the criminal history of applicants at all during the admissions process.
“UC campuses don’t ask applicants for admission to provide information about past criminal convictions, and our admissions directors see no need to do so,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Officials see the move as a way to lower the barriers to post-secondary education by individuals with criminal records.
“Research shows that one key obstacle for the millions of Americans with criminal records is the collection and use of criminal justice information in the application process for post-secondary education and training,” Mr. King said.
Currently, close to 700 colleges and universities use the “Common Application” in undergraduate college admissions, which in 2006 began requiring students to indicate if they have been “adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime,” according to the education department guidebook.
In his letter to college leaders, Mr. King wrote that adopting an alternative approach to asking about the criminal histories of college applicants would help “attract a diverse and qualified student body without creating unnecessary barriers for prospective students who have been involve with the justice system but who are now seeking to lead successful and law-abiding lives.”
Asked about the potential effects the changes in the admissions process to exclude inquires about criminal history could have on campus safety, Mr. King said research has not linked with past criminal histories to any sort of uptick in crime on college campuses.
“There are better ways to ensure campus safety than to stigmatize those who are trying to better their lives through higher education,” Ms. Napolitano said.