ED Urges Schools Not to Ask About Criminal History in College Applications

Many colleges ask applicants to disclose criminal history before admission. The government is urging schools to refrain from asking for this information.
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  • Formerly incarcerated individuals can have difficulty being accepted into colleges and universities.
  • While the Common App no longer asks for criminal history, many individual schools still do.
  • The "Ban the Box" movement urges schools to remove questions about criminal history from their applications.
  • The Department of Education recently endorsed this movement.

Nearly three-quarters of colleges and universities ask potential students to disclose their criminal history, but the federal government is now encouraging these schools to drop that requirement.

The Department of Education (ED) updated its "Beyond the Box" guidance to mark the end of Second Chance Month in April. Central to that guidance is the urging of institutions to stop using prior criminal history as a barrier for formerly incarcerated individuals to access higher education and attain a degree or credential.

The Common App — used by more than 900 colleges and universities — dropped the criminal history question in 2020. However, according to ED, nearly 72% of schools still require applicants to disclose criminal history information.

"Despite the progress made, this still represents a significant barrier for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking to enroll in higher education," ED's guidance states.

The department stresses that contrary to popular belief, evidence suggests that denying students admission due to criminal history does not contribute to campus safety.

One study cited by ED found that less than 5% of students who engaged in misconduct while on campus had a criminal history. Another study found statistically no difference in crime rates between those schools that review disciplinary history with those that do not.

Additionally, asking about criminal history dissuades people from even applying to college.

A 2015 Center for Community Alternative study found that 62.5% of State University of New York (SUNY) applicants who disclosed felony convictions never submitted a complete application. That's much higher than the average attrition rate of 21%.

"Removing the question of criminal history … will significantly lower barriers to admission for formerly incarcerated students," ED's guidance states.

If colleges and universities still choose to ask about criminal history in applications, ED laid out recommendations for how they can do so in a limited way:

  • Ask for convictions only, not arrests
  • Ask for felony convictions only, not misdemeanors or infractions
  • Ask only for offenses that occurred over the past five years
  • Ask only for offenses that occurred after the age of 19

These parameters narrow the applications to include only information that is most relevant to campus safety, the guidance states.

"For example, limiting the question to only convictions in the past five years is based on research establishing that the odds of reoffense decline significantly over time, such that by four to eight years after the original offense, these individuals have the same rates of crime as first-time offenders."

ED hopes easing the pathway to higher education may help close the employment gap for formerly incarcerated people.

A December 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that of more than 51,500 people released from federal prisons in 2010, 33% found no employment over four years post-release. No more than 40% of the cohort was employed at any given time.