“Ban the Box” Campaigns Seek to End Discrimination Against Formerly Incarcerated College Applicants

(Image: Checking box via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)(Image: Checking Box via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

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“Selene” had been out of prison for one month when she applied to Dutchess Community College and Ulster Community College, both part of the State University of New York system. SUNY requires applicants to check a box if they had ever been convicted of a felony. Selene checked the box.

Preliminary findings by the Center for Community Alternatives, [which] assists formerly incarcerated people with reentry, found that the attrition rate of college applicants who check the box is double, and for some schools quadruple, the rate of applicants who do not.

Both schools asked Selene to come in and take placement tests. Selene had to ask her parole officer for permission to leave Kingston and travel to Poughkeepsie, where the college is located. If she’d had a car, the trip would have taken her 30 to 45 minutes. But Selene did not. Instead, she got up at 5 am to take the one and only bus from Kingston to Poughkeepsie, which left at 6 am. From the bus depot, she then took a cab to the college. “I had no money; I had no income,” she told Truthout. “So it was a massive undertaking to do this, but this is my future.”

At the college, she filled out financial aid forms and took her placement tests. She then attempted to hand in her paperwork at the registrar’s office. “The lady handed me my papers back and said, ‘You need to go stand in that line.’ “

What Selene didn’t know is that, since 1998, the State University of New York has had a policy of screening applicants for felony convictions. SUNY’s 64 colleges are not the only schools to do so. Since 2006, the common application, used by nearly 500 universities across the country, has included a question about an applicant’s past criminal convictions. Many schools that do not use the common application also ask applicants to check a box if they have a criminal record.

The box has a discouraging effect on those seeking to pursue higher education: Preliminary findings in a study by the Center for Community Alternatives, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated people with reentry, found that the attrition rate of college applicants who check the box is double, and for some schools quadruple, the rate of applicants who do not.

Checking the Box

As Selene learned, prospective students who check the box face other obstacles even after completing the application. Half an hour after being told to stand in a separate line, Selene was told to speak with campus security. “They gave me all my paperwork back and I had to go down, literally to the basement next to the boiler room,” she recalled. “They have all of these security cameras, and you can see the kiosk where they review all the video footage. You feel like you’re in a booking room. It’s horrible.”

There, she was handed a thick stack of papers to fill out. “I am not kidding when I tell you that these are 8½ by 11 sheets of paper, single-spaced, and almost two hundred pages to fill out,” she said. But, because only one bus traveled from Poughkeepsie to Kingston each evening, she was unable to fill out the forms then and there. Instead, she took the packet on the bus.

“I’m in poverty,” Selene recalled. “I’m living in a homeless shelter. I’m literally collecting bottles to pay for this because I don’t have money. I have no income. I have nothing, literally nothing.” But still she set to work collecting the required documentation, including her arrest record, prison rap sheet and official disposition of her case. Lacking money to make photocopies, she mailed in her only copies.

After two weeks had passed without response, she called to follow up. The admissions office told her they couldn’t find it. “They sent me another packet and they told me that, next time, I should send it certified so that I can prove that I sent it.” SUNY Ulster put her through a similar process.

Even after Coalition members pointed out that the City University of New York system, which has never asked about arrest or conviction histories, has never seen any problems with safety and crime on campus, SUNY officials refused to budge.

The College and Community Fellowship assists formerly incarcerated women enroll in colleges. “Over time, we found that people were having difficulties with the application process,” said CCF executive director Vivian Nixon in a phone interview with Truthout. That difficulty revolved around the question of past felony convictions. Those who checked the box, like Selene, found that they had to undergo another application process. “But the response was so different, even within the same university system,” Nixon noted. “SUNY has different responses across their different campuses. There is no consistency. And people are rarely prepared for what happens when they check the box.”

Although CCF had started as a direct service organization, it became involved in policy work as part of the Education from the Inside Out coalition. The coalition met with officials from the State University of New York about the question – and their supplementary application process. “They were resistant to changing policy,” Nixon recalled. Even after coalition members pointed out that the City University of New York system, which has never asked about arrest or conviction histories, has never seen any problems with safety and crime on campus, SUNY officials refused to budge.

“So we decided to go through legislation to change this,” Nixon said. CCF and other coalition members approached legislators to talk about the issue, and – given the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are incarcerated – the impact on people and communities of color.

The result is the Fair Access to Education bill, which removes the question of past convictions from New York State college applications. This does not mean, however, that the question can never be asked. Colleges and universities can still ask, but only after accepting an applicant. If passed, it would be the first state to ban the box on college applications.

“We want New York to be a model for other states,” Mel Gagarin, CCF’s senior associate of public affairs, told Truthout. “We want other states to see that the house hasn’t burned down because we’ve stopped asking this question.”

Both Gagarin and Nixon note the disproportionate impact of policing and imprisonment on people of color. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that African-American men, for instance, are imprisoned at seven times the rate of their white counterparts and at three times the rate of Latinos. Black women are nearly three times more likely to go to prison than white women. Latina women are 1.5 times more likely to end up behind bars than white women. Thus, the box is more likely to dissuade, if not outright bar, people of color than their white counterparts.

“We’re talking about people who are academically qualified but are essentially weeded out through the attrition process and/or the supplementary process,” Gagarin pointed out.

Selene agrees. After her ordeal providing supplementary information and traveling back and forth to SUNY Ulster and Dutchess Community College for interviews with security staff, she decided to fill out a new application. This time, she did not check the box. Not only was she accepted, but she recalls that the director of admissions drove to Kingston to help her complete her application for financial aid. (Selene did not enroll in either college.)

The box is more likely to dissuade, if not outright bar, people of color than their white counterparts.

Cory Greene spent 6 years, 10 months and 20 days in prison. While in prison, he connected with College Initiative, a community-based organization that assists formerly incarcerated people enter college. Before his release, the organization sent him a packet with information about all of the schools in the City University of New York system. Two days after he returned home, Greene walked into LaGuardia Community College and enrolled.

“The good thing about LaGuardia and the CUNY system is that they don’t have any questions about criminal history,” he told Truthout. “I had no problems enrolling. I had just come out of prison, but I was able to get financial aid, select courses and begin my college career.”

By the time Greene walked into LaGuardia, he had been out of school for 10 years. But he was undaunted by the challenge. “It was a place that I wanted to reclaim,” he recalled. “I was a father to a young Black boy. I always believe that the work that I do, whether as a college student or as a community organizer, is inherently related to parenting and to building bonds with community members. It was really important for him to see me as a student, as a person who could occupy college spaces and know that he is able to occupy these spaces if he should choose.”

LaGuardia is a two-year college offering an associate’s degree. Seeking to continue his education, Greene applied to several four-year colleges within the CUNY system, as well as to New York University, a private university located in New York’s Greenwich Village. NYU, which uses the common application, asks prospective students about past convictions. Greene checked the box. “When I checked the box, I had to write another personal statement about the crime,” he explained. He did so and was accepted.

Two years later, as he neared graduation, Greene decided to pursue his doctorate and applied to five programs. “One particular school, the University of Michigan, sent me through a really painful process after I checked the box,” he recalled. “Not only did I have to write a personal statement on why I was arrested and what I learned from it, I had a three-week period in which I went back and forth on email with an administrator named Monique.”

At first, Monique asked Cory to write another letter explaining his arrest, the gun he had, his reasons for having the gun and his life after prison, despite the fact that he had included these details in his personal statement. A few days later, she asked if he was currently on probation or parole. If so, he needed to submit a letter from his parole or probation officer. Greene was not but was then required to provide his parole release papers. He also needed to submit a copy of his arrest report from 2002, the transcript from his 2004 sentencing hearing, and letters from family and community members attesting to his character and assuring the school that he would not pose a danger on campus. “And this was after I had sent her all my transcripts saying that I graduated with honors from LaGuardia Community College and was graduating with honors from NYU!”

Pushing to Abolish the Box Everywhere

By that time, Green was working on a participatory action research project about the structural barriers to college education with Michelle Fine, a professor who had spearheaded earlier studies on the importance of college programs inside prison, CCF, College Initiative and other formerly incarcerated people. So, although he was in the midst of finals and finishing his honors thesis, Greene persevered, in part, he said, to see how far the school would take the process.

Persevering meant numerous visits to the precinct, hours spent waiting in the courthouse and convincing his parole officer to write him a letter. It also meant asking 20 other people for letters as well as three weeks of back-and-forth with the university, a process he documented in “Checking the Box: Enduring the Stigma of Applying to Graduate School Post-Incarceration.” In January, shortly after winter break had ended, Greene received a letter of rejection.

At the same time, Greene and other students began the fight to ban the box at NYU. In 2013, the school’s Applied Psychology Club and How Our Lives Link Altogether (HOLLA), a youth mentoring organization, sponsored a screening of Passport to the Future, a 20-minute documentary about barriers to education. The subsequent discussion lasted for three hours and led to the formation of the Incarceration to Education coalition, which is pushing NYU to abolish the box. The group has met with university administrators, reached out to the larger student body and sponsored events to raise awareness and galvanize action. “Our goal is to abolish the box by the next application cycle,” said Greene.

The coalition has also started working with several other universities across the country to abolish the box on the common application. If they succeed, it means that those applying to nearly 500 schools will no longer face that barrier.

“Education offers so many resources and connections,” said Greene, now a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, which does not ask applicants about criminal convictions. “When you deny someone an education, you’re not just hurting them. You’re hurting a whole community of folks who don’t have access to resources that schools like NYU provide.”