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Expanding the American Dream: Destigmatizing Past Criminal Justice Involvement

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

By Lynn Pasquerella

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is committed to higher education’s role in building a vibrant and inclusive American democracy. Our mission’s focus on quality and equity as the twin foundations for excellence in higher education compels us to advance college opportunity as a remedy for systemic inequality in society and as a gateway to future prosperity and flourishing for all.

A growing body of evidence illustrates how the stigma of past criminal justice involvement compounds racial and socioeconomic disparities while limiting opportunity for those who become involved in the criminal justice system. Some estimates indicate that up to one-third of American adults have criminal records, for reasons that include nonviolent offenses and arrests that did not result in conviction. These individuals—a disproportionate share of whom are men of color—face significant economic consequences, including low rates of employment and restricted earnings.[i]

For those who wish to chart a path to a better future, possibilities can be limited, and college admissions practices may further narrow their options. Many institutions collect information about criminal justice involvement as part of the college application process, and some data suggest that applicants with convictions on their records are considerably less likely to finish their college applications, perhaps due to fear that stigma will derail their dreams. Yet the evidence does not indicate that campuses are safer as a result of criminal history screening. In fact, because education has been associated with lower recidivism rates, educating those with past criminal justice involvement may have broad positive effects for society.[ii]

AAC&U believes that higher education should be an engine of opportunity for all, and we recognize that higher education has broad value to the public good. For this reason, we encourage our member institutions to review their practices related to criminal justice involvement and to promote discussion on their campuses about initiatives such as the national movement to “ban the box” (i.e., to remove questions about past criminal justice involvement from applications for admission). We support our members in taking action to mitigate the negative effects that such involvement can have on students, on communities, and on America’s democratic promise.

As AAC&U’s Board of Directors has said, “without inclusion, there is no true excellence.”[iii] We encourage higher education leaders, staff, faculty, and students to strive for the boldest vision of inclusive excellence possible, and to create communities of practice where all students can realize their American Dreams.

Update: For additional information about criminal justice involvement and higher education opportunity, see

On April 13, 2018, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz requested report language supporting banning the box for higher education in the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019. 

This is the first time a congressional committee recognized that “asking certain types of criminal history questions as part of higher education admissions process can have a discriminatory effect and greatly impact who applies to and is ultimately accepted into higher education,” which is in itself a milestone.

Below is the report language. 

Criminal History Questions.—The Committee recognizes that asking certain types of criminal history questions as part of higher education admissions process can have a discriminatory effect and greatly impact who applies to and is ultimately accepted into higher education. The Committee encourages the Department to proactively distribute the “Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals” resource guide to institutions of higher education, and technical assistance to institutions of higher education conducting the “College and University Self-Assessment” contained therein to help institutions examine whether, when, and how to use criminal justice information in the higher education admissions and enrollment process. The Department shall report to the Committee not later than 90 days after enactment of this act on the number and category of contacts made pursuant to the paragraph and plans for additional actions on this issue. (p.202) (April 13, 2018)

Center for Community Alternatives, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition (March 2015), http://communityalternatives.org/pdf/publications/BoxedOut_FullReport.pdf.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “‘Ban the Box’ Goes to College,” Atlantic, April 29, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/ban-the-box-comes-to-campus/480195.

United States Department of Education, Beyond the Box Resource Guide: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals 10 (May 9, 2016), https://www2.ed.gov/documents/beyond-the-box/guidance.pdf.

 

[i] Rebecca Vallas, Melissa Boteach, Rachel West, and Jackie Odum, Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents with Criminal Records and Their Children: A Two-Generation Approach (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, December 2015), 1, 4, https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/09060720/CriminalRecords-report2.pdf.

[ii] Center for Community Alternatives, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition (New York: Center for Community Alternatives, 2015), i-ii, 46, http://communityalternatives.org/pdf/publications/BoxedOut_FullReport.pdf.

[iii] Association of American Colleges and Universities Board of Directors, “Board Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence,” June 27, 2013, https://aacu.org/about/statements/2013/diversity.