Colleges are staging areas for economic success and personal prosperity. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin recently observed to the New York Times, “a bachelor’s degree is the closest thing to a class boundary that exists today.” Indeed, a report from the Pew Research Center shows that for the last two decades, only college graduates have seen their incomes rise.
As students start fall classes across the country, it is worth considering how many promising individuals have been discouraged or disadvantaged in the college admissions process because of their criminal record. Sixty-five million Americans now have a misdemeanor or felony conviction; the number of individuals with a criminal record who have considered applying to college is probably no paltry sum.
The steep rise in convictions in recent decades means that exclusionary college admission practices may needlessly intensify socioeconomic inequality in America. Furthermore, because the criminal justice system is rife with racial bias, criminal history screenings are likely to exacerbate the racial gap in higher education. Acute racial disparities in arrest and conviction rates — disproportionately ensnaring young Black and Brown men — ensure that the use of criminal justice information in college admissions is not a race-neutral practice.
College criminal history screenings often evoke concerns about campus safety. But American college campuses have long maintained low violent crime rates, while requiring information about past convictions has become common only recently. One study shows that approximately 67% of all colleges and universities now require an applicant’s criminal history. Nevertheless, empirical evidence shows that schools that require criminal histories are no safer than those that do not.
On the other hand, hindering individuals with criminal records from going to college may negatively affect public safety. Criminological research clearly shows that educational programs reduce the likelihood that people with convictions will commit future crimes. Furthermore, with a national average cost of incarceration at more than $25,000 a year per inmate, taxpayers stand to save a great deal by helping people stay out of trouble and out of jail.
It is disappointing, then, that people who have “paid their dues” and want to attend college are increasingly subject to the obstacle of criminal history screenings. Some institutions flatly deny all applicants with felony convictions. Even at institutions that purport to accept most applicants, convictions may still hurt an applicant’s chance of admission, scholarship and other financial support. Furthermore, privacy in the admissions process is not guaranteed. Revealing sensitive conviction information may stigmatize students before they even set foot on campus.
Perhaps most importantly, the prospect of having to respond to the criminal history question itself negatively affects applicants and might deter them from even applying. Practically speaking, people are reluctant to spend money on a college application when they expect to be denied. And just having to “check the box” causes people to relive the traumatic experiences that accompanied their conviction. Responding to criminal history questions is daunting and emotionally taxing. It is a stark reminder that people with convictions are hounded by their past long after they have served their time.
Over 50 years ago, Brown v. Board enshrined the importance of education in a functioning democracy. In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that education is “the very foundation of good citizenship.” Years later, acclaimed law professor Cheryl Harris pointed to education as the primary means of ending inequality. If we accept these claims and take the pursuit of equality seriously, it is time to support access to higher education for all people.