Beyond the Box: Reaffirming the Civic Mission of Colleges and Universities
In May 2018, the Association of American Colleges and Universities issued a statement encouraging decision makers on college and university campuses across the country to remove questions regarding criminal justice involvement from their applications for admission. This enjoinder came in response to a call by Hawaiian Senator Brian Schatz and seventeen of his legislative colleagues to follow the trend of state and local legislation prohibiting such questions on employment applications. Schatz’s initiative, the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, was first introduced to Congress last September. It was reintroduced last month as part of a package aimed at expanding access to education for Americans with criminal records. A second proposal, the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act, is new legislation that would improve federal prison education, creating partnerships between prisons and local colleges and universities and establishing an education office within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Educational programs at state and local prisons would also be enhanced through the provision of additional training and resources.
The continued use of questions regarding past arrest records in the college application process runs the risk of compounding racial and socioeconomic disparities. An estimated seventy million people have arrest or conviction records that would appear on a criminal background check. Indeed, about one in three Americans has been arrested at least once by the age of twenty-three. A disproportionate number of these individuals are men of color, and their prospects for educational attainment and economic advancement are further limited by their incarceration. When asked about their histories, prospective students who have been arrested, even for cases of misdemeanor, nonviolent offenses, are much less likely to finish their college applications than those without past involvement. These statistics reflect a growing economic and racial segregation in our society.
One of the most encouraging developments in redressing the continued stigmatization and marginalization of individuals with arrest records is the removal of questions about criminal histories from the Common Application. This nonprofit organization, which produces the single form used by more than a million students each year to apply to more than eight hundred colleges and universities, announced the change last August. There is good reason to applaud their decision. While there is no evidence indicating that campuses are safer as a consequence of criminal history screening, offering pathways to higher education increases the economic potential for those with criminal and juvenile justice involvement. At the same time, there are demonstrated societal benefits. While the national recidivism rate is 43.3 percent within three years of release, formerly incarcerated individuals with an associate’s degree have only a 13.7 percent recidivism rate. For those with a bachelor’s degree, the rate drops to 5.6 percent. Less than one percent return to prison after earning a master’s degree.
AAC&U is dedicated to the ideal of higher education as a public good and to reaffirming the critical role colleges and universities play in building a vibrant and inclusive American democracy. For this reason, we remain committed to extending access to excellence in higher education to all members of society and to taking action to mitigate the negative effects that criminal justice involvement can have on students, on communities, and on the pursuit of the American dream.