October has been a monumental month for the campaign to remove inquiries regarding previous arrests and criminal convictions from college admission applications. At an Oct. 7 NYU Law discussion, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech was interrupted by members of the NYU Incarceration to Education Coalition, which “works to end discrimination against … applicants with criminal records.” Three local New York colleges completely eliminated this question from their applications on Oct. 26. The change is a critical step in reducing criminal discrimination in the admissions process — especially because it removes unjust inquiries about arrests that may not have led to convictions.
While the progress made by these three schools is significant, most critics aim to entirely remove conviction-focused questions from the Common Application. The application asks: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime?” and notes that applicants whose records are confidential can respond “No.” The Common App is used by over 500 universities, including NYU. While these universities accept students from every state, there are discrepancies in handling juvenile offenses across the country. Expunging or sealing criminal records for juveniles varies across states in numerous ways, including in the definition of juvenile age, the cost and the permitted timeframe. The cost of removing this criminal history is perhaps the most unfair barrier, as economically disadvantaged individuals have a harder time paying the fee and navigating legal channels.
By asking for information on an applicant’s criminal record, colleges disregard the systematic privilege given to certain demographics. This is arguably inherent in old and persistent policies such as stop-and-frisk and minor marijuana arrests, in which black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested than white Americans for possession, though the two groups use the drug at tantamount rates. In New York City, for example, a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men are arrested, and therefore more likely to be convicted, for misdemeanors each year. By requiring applicants to disclose any misdemeanor charges, colleges allow discriminatory police actions to taint their selection process. Considering the national history of racial injustice, it is time universities insulate them- selves from the influence of these unfair principles.
While it is understandable that universities want to be aware of this criminal history, there is no evidence showing colleges that ask about criminal records are safer than those that do not. Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admissions at Princeton University, has defended criminal inquiries, saying “We take all of this information into account in our holistic review of the applicant.” However, a prospective student’s previous interaction with the criminal justice system should not be a factor in the admissions process given the prevalent racial bias. Questions forcing students to disclose their criminal status disproportionately target marginalized minority groups and function as another unacceptable barrier to higher education.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 30 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]