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On August 1, Louisiana will become the first state with a law barring public colleges and universities from asking applicants for admission about any criminal records they may have.
The law reflects a major victory for the "ban the box" movement, which has pushed to eliminate such questions. But the details about the law -- and the way Louisiana State University has handled such applications to date -- may show some of the limits of such legislation.
The idea behind "Ban the Box" is that asking questions about criminal background lead many people not to apply to college at all, even if they pose no danger to anyone. And many educators worry that, given the unfair treatment of young black people by some in law enforcement, some of those who might have to answer "yes" to such a question never did anything wrong. Many also point to the role of higher education in helping people -- even those who committed crimes in the past -- become productive members of society.
In Louisiana, the push for the legislation came from lawmakers who were approached by Syrita Steib-Martin, currently working as a lab technician in New Orleans. She served nine years in prison for her role in the robbery of a car dealership. Since her release in 2009, she has pursued a different (and entirely legal) life. When she applied for a college program at the University of New Orleans, checking the box about her conviction on the application, she was rejected. When she re-applied later, not checking the box, she was accepted and won a scholarship, setting her up for a career as a lab tech.
To proponents of the new law, her initial rejection exemplifies the dangers of asking the question.
Such stories led the Education Department (during the Obama administration) to encourage colleges to stop asking the question. But the issue remains controversial, and most of the political support has come from Democrats. The Louisiana governor who signed the legislation, John Bel Edwards, is a Democrat.
In Maryland, Democratic legislators passed a similar bill. But Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed it. In his veto message, he said the bill could have created dangers for students because it did not allow public colleges to continue to ask questions about felonies, including violent felonies. He indicated that he would have been open to the bill had it only covered non-violent convictions.
Prior to the Louisiana law, the biggest win for "ban the box" was in September, when the board of the 64-campus State University of New York voted to stop asking the question on applications.
At the same time, the questions aren't being completely eliminated, but they are being moved.
SUNY will ask some of those admitted, post-admission, for that information. Admitted applicants will have to answer the question if they seek campus housing or to participate in certain clinical or field experiences, internships, or study abroad. Many have argued that these questions are essential, in part because those with some criminal records would be disqualified from some programs in the health professions or work with children, so not raising these issues early on may not serve anyone well.
While the Louisiana law resulted in headlines about the box being banned, it has some significant exceptions -- in some ways similar to the SUNY policy but in some ways beyond it.
The law exempts programs that use national application services, as is the case at LSU's Health Science Centers, in New Orleans and Shreveport, which operate many health professions programs that would ask questions about criminal backgrounds (and likely bar participation for those who answer Yes) for many clinical and licensing requirements.
Further, the bill permits Louisiana colleges to continue to ask and deny admission based on sex-related crimes and stalking. LSU pushed hard for these exceptions, arguing that this is relevant information for admitting people to a campus where many will live in close quarters.
And data from LSU show that, in the past, checking the box did not automatically mean that applicants were rejected:
- In 2015-16, 16 applicants checked the box, and 8 were admitted.
- In 2016-17, 23 checked the box and 16 were admitted.