Have you ever been charged with or convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime other than a minor traffic offense, or are there any criminal charges now pending against you?
That is the question at the heart of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s push to remove the box on the Common Application, used by 600 colleges and universities across the country. Of particular concern for the nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group are 17 schools in the South where the question goes beyond simple conviction – instead, the universities want to know about any brush with the law a prospective student has experienced, including arrests that never led to charges.
One of the schools under inquiry by the advocacy group is Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. “The disparities and underrepresentation we see at schools is a concern, and this may indeed be one of the contributing factors,” says Kristen Clarke, the group’s executive director, as she illustrates her point with statistics showing that African American students make up only 7% of the student body. The same demographic comprises 25% of the population in the state as a whole.
If the group is successful in their efforts, the result might look similar to the employment version of this movement, popularly known as “ban the box,” which also had its start as a grassroots movement. Now, though, 19 states and more than 100 cities and counties have adopted the legislation that removes conviction as a first barrier to employment. Government employers – and in 7 states, private employers, too – can no longer disseminate applications that include a question about the applicant’s criminal history. Instead, employers can ask about that during the interview, or when a conditional job offer has been made.
The reasons behind both “ban the box” and the college and university movement are virtually identical: to relieve undue bias against applicants of color, who are over-represented in school discipline and incarceration contexts. For example, should a student with straight As and perfect test scores be denied the opportunity of higher education just because of a single bad decision? Where this differs from traditional employment and criminal employment screening is that, oftentimes, juvenile crimes are listed as “adjudications,” rather than “convictions.” Conducting screening on a minor (under 18) is also a little trickier in terms of the FCRA, something that must be considered by colleges and universities where the entrants are often 17 years of age.
A number of schools, including some of the Ivy League variety, are beginning to question how colleges and universities screen candidates, and whether the right things are being focused on. In January, Harvard University released a report on college admissions, suggesting that test scores be de-emphasized in admission decisions. Instead, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and other schools agree that selections should be made based on how a student engages with his or her community and family.
While these observations from top universities and the inquiry from the advocacy group are unlikely to see any immediate change, it will be interesting to see going forward how these and other ideological concerns are addressed in the future.
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