Common App Drops Criminal History Question

Decision reverses one made a year ago to keep the question. Individual colleges may still ask it. Disciplinary records question remains.

August 13, 2018
 

The Common Application announced Tuesday that it is dropping the question it has been asking since 2006 about applicants' criminal histories.

Many educators and civil rights activities have been pushing the Common App for years to drop the question. For the organization, Tuesday's announcement is a major shift. In March 2017, after its last review of the issue, the organization announced that it was keeping the question. Individual colleges maintain the right to ask the question on their supplements to the Common Application, just as they have had the ability to not consider the information provided to date. But advocates for "banning the box," as the movement to end the question has been known, have said that including or dropping the question from the main application would have a major impact.

An email sent by the Common Application to its members Tuesday noted that they were split on the issue.

"Member feedback shows there are strong and differing opinions regarding both keeping the question 'common,' and for leaving the decision on whether and how to ask the question up to individual members," the Common App's statement said. "While a majority of survey respondents would prefer to keep the question on the 'common' portion of the application, we found variation in member preferences based on institution type and other factors. For example, the majority of public institution survey respondents preferred that the question be asked at the discretion of the member."

The change will first take place in the 2019-20 application.

The statement also said that a question on disciplinary incidents in high school would remain on the application.

Asked why the disciplinary question was remaining, a Common App spokesman said via email, "In consultation with our membership, we found there is greater commonality in the practices and use of school disciplinary history. As with all questions on the application, we will continue to evaluate what, if any, adjustments will be necessary in the future."

Critics of the questions on criminal history and disciplinary records have cited a number of reasons to drop the question. Some have noted the way parts of the criminal justice system and some high schools show bias against black and Latino youth. Others have questioned whether an infraction when a student is in the ninth grade should be used to evaluate someone a few years later. Still others have questioned whether most admissions officers have the expertise to evaluate if a criminal record reflects a genuine issue to consider.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Education Department urged colleges to rethink their policies to routinely ask questions on criminal and disciplinary history.

But some college officials have defended asking the questions. They have noted demands from parents to ask about criminal backgrounds, and criticism of colleges that have admitted those found to have committed sexual assaults at other institutions. Others have noted that certain careers -- in the health professions or in education -- ban those with certain criminal convictions from taking state licensure exams.

‘Long Overdue’

Marsha Weissman, former executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives, which has criticized questions on criminal history and disciplinary records, said via email that the Common App's move was "a step forward," but she argued that more needs to be done.

She said the action on the criminal history question was "long overdue," adding that the move "shifts the responsibility to individual colleges that may well be more amendable to hearing from their student groups and faculty, including directly impacted people, about whether and how to change this. As an advocate for removing such questions from applications, I am optimistic that many, if not most, colleges and universities will choose not to so inquire."

Weissman added, however, that there was no reason to keep the disciplinary records question.

"Leaving the question about school discipline, at least as it applies to high school, is ridiculous based on the vagaries of how discipline varies by district, school and classroom," she said. "It gets one little more than junk, but unfortunately junk that has roots in racial bias. It also overemphasizes behavior done by adolescents -- and flies in the face of the science of adolescent brain development. Even the juvenile justice system is recognizing that."

 

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