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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

ED Report Outlines Ways to Support College Applicants with Criminal Histories

June 1, 2016

Colleges and universities can join efforts to help foster second chances for people with criminal histories, the Department of Education recently advised.

In a "Dear Colleague Letter" May 9, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., notes that about 70 million Americans have criminal records. Asking college applicants upfront about that history—and judging them on it alone—may be preventing some students who under law have paid their debt to society from accessing postsecondary education, King suggests.

In conjunction with the letter, ED released "Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals." The resource guide acknowledges the balancing act colleges and universities must perform: ensuring campus safety while also providing access to students with criminal justice involvement (CJI) who have earned a second chance.

"The guide ... offers recommendations to the higher education community—including college and university presidents, deans, admissions officers and counselors—for designing admissions policies that attract a diverse and qualified student body without creating unnecessary barriers for prospective students who have been involved with the justice system, but who are now seeking to lead successful and law-abiding lives," King writes. "We urge you, as institutional leaders to carefully consider the approaches currently in use at our institutions, as well as the specific recommendations identified in the guide."

Students receive criminal records for a wide variety of reasons, including a guilty plea to avoid prison time or an "impulsive decision at a young age," according to Beyond the Box. And while research in the area isn't robust, ED notes in the guide that available studies have not found a strong link between asking applicants about CJI and decreased rates of campus crime.

The guide's recommendations for schools include:

  1. Rethink the application process: Some schools that use the Common Application make optional a question regarding misdemeanors, felonies, and other crimes. Alternatively, colleges could delay consideration of the answer. New York University, for instance, does a preliminary review of applications without the question included. Upon second review of applications deemed admissible, a trained committee assesses applicants who reported they have a criminal history.

    "Requesting and considering CJI early in the admissions process can prevent some qualified applicants from ever applying and overshadow individual merit and achievement with historical information that may be irrelevant to the student's prospect for success on campus and likely contributions to the campus community," according to the guide. 

  2. Judge candidates holistically: Trained admissions personnel could assess applicants on many factors, including test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays. Applicants could also receive space to explain their criminal past and subsequent rehabilitation.

  3. Be upfront: Schools that judge applicants on their responses to criminal histories should be transparent about their admissions criteria, Beyond the Box advises. Students who are not accepted because of their criminal record should be informed, and should also have the right to appeal the denial, the guide advises.

In addition to admissions ideas, the guide offers examples of institutions with special programs for students with criminal histories once they're on campus. Vital support mechanisms include academic, financial, and career counseling, mentor programs, and more.


Anne Gross
Vice President, Regulatory Affairs