People with criminal histories and college admissions: Help is available

People with criminal histories and college admissions: Help is available
May 19
07:35 2016

On May 9, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) urged America’s colleges and universities to eliminate barriers to higher education for an estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) welcomes DOE’s resource guide, “Beyond the Box,” which offers alternatives to inquiring about criminal histories during college admissions.

In January 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee launched the “Fair Chance in Higher Education” initiative, a national effort to eliminate barriers to educational opportunity for college applicants who may have been stopped, detained, or arrested by the police.

“No one should be denied access to college or university merely because of contact with the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The inclusion of criminal history related questions on admissions forms has a disparate impact on African-Americans and other minority applicants seeking access to higher educational opportunities. The U.S. Department of Education has taken an important first step with the issuance of today’s guidance, and we urge expanded federal enforcement in this area to ensure that all schools across our nation lift one of the most significant hurdles faced by minority applicants today. The racial disparities in our criminal justice system and the collateral consequences faced by those brought into contact with the justice system makes this an issue that warrants greater attention.”

The first phase of the Fair Chance in Higher Education initiative sought information from 17 colleges and universities in seven states in the South which require applicants to disclose contact with the criminal justice system, including arrests that did not lead to conviction. To date, four colleges have reached agreement with the Lawyers’ Committee to revise their admissions policies to eliminate questions related to arrest history. These include Auburn University, Auburn University -Montgomery, Clark Atlanta University and Emory & Henry University. The Lawyers’ Committee also issued a call for The Common Application to eliminate the dis-closure of convictions and high school disciplinary violations. The Common Application is used by more than 600 colleges across the country. The Lawyers’ Committee is continuing to investigate the practices of other universities across the country.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, “Demographic characteristics are now more strongly correlated with sentencing outcomes than during previous periods.” Research suggests that minority defendants are treated differently at several stages of the criminal justice process.  In addition, many colleges ask prospective students to disclose school discipline histories. Yet according to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC), there are vast racial disparities in the use of suspensions and expulsions to address student behavior. Overly punitive discipline policies can negatively impact minority students by disproportionately contributing to their referral to the juvenile justice system.

“We are particularly concerned that many applicants may be deterred from pursuing higher education when colleges require the disclosure of arrest or conviction histories or school discipline histories on their application forms,” said Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Lawyers’ Committee understands the importance of safe learning environments. Given the lack of evidence that seeking the mandatory disclosure of arrest, conviction or discipline history improves campus safety, the Lawyers’ Committee seeks the elimination of all questions related to such history on college applications. For those institutions that continue to seek such information, however, “Beyond the Box” offers a number of recommendations, including delaying disclosure until after admissions, narrowly tailoring questions, and training admissions personnel on the effective use of criminal history information.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit

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