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Criminal history questions don’t belong on college campuses

Many students have likely encountered questions about criminal history on a job application, but these questions on college applications have actively barred people from becoming students.

The Common Application, which almost 500 colleges now use, has asked applicants about their criminal convictions since 2006, according to a New York Times column. In addition, consideration of an applicant’s criminal record goes back to 1990, when Congress passed the Clery Act, which requires schools to report campus violence after Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery was murdered in her dorm in 1986.

While campus safety is crucial and must be taken seriously, questions about criminal records on college applications have underlying problems that schools can’t continue disguising as safety.

As the NY Times column mentioned, a recent study by the nonprofit Center for Community Alternatives addressed the fact that many applicants with convictions do not end up completing their applications. In observing 60 of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses, the study showed that two-thirds of applicants who indicated they had committed a crime did not finish their applications.

Asking if someone has committed a misdemeanor or felony is more than just a question of criminal history, it’s a question that continuously keeps people from seeking advancement.

Job applicants almost always answer similar questions. As noted by the nonprofit criminal justice news organization The Marshall Project, the “ban the box” movement, which argues for the removal of criminal record questions on job applications, is supported by major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, and the effort to destigmatize one’s criminal history needs to reach out to college applicants as well. 

While having a criminal record doesn’t necessarily mean an applicant will be denied, it can still raise flags for a university and give the applicant a more difficult time in the process.

If someone includes on his application that he has committed crimes in the past, he could be asked for letters from the psychologist and superintendent of the prison, as well as from the applicant’s parole officer, as occurred in one case mentioned by the Marshall Project.

The NY Times column noted that schools sometimes hunt for information on alcohol convictions and rap sheets, which include sealed, juvenile offenses that aren’t meant for public use.  

While USF does not use Common Application, Florida law requires background checks on students practicing “clinical experiences” in school, and some programs, such as those in the College of Education and the College of the Arts, require a disclosure of arrest.

Though some students might feel uncomfortable knowing other students have a criminal history regardless of what that history is applicants should not have to jump through hoops to have the opportunity to get a college degree and potentially improve their stance in life, nor should the application process limit one’s access to an education.