The Box Is Alive and Well at Many Institutions

Debate at Princeton illustrates challenges that remain for movement to end admissions questions on criminal history.

November 26, 2018
 

The movement to "ban the box" -- to end admissions questions about whether applicants have any criminal history -- has appeared to be gaining in momentum.

In August, the Common Application dropped the question as standard on its forms (while continuing to allow individual colleges to ask). The Common App changed its policy after years of lobbying on the issue by some of its member colleges, student activists and others (including Education Department leaders during the Obama administration). Critics of the question said that inequities in the judicial system's treatment of young black people, especially black men, make it suspect to rely on criminal records in the admissions process. Others note that some who have a criminal history may also be substantially different people by the time they apply to college, and deserving of support.

But despite the apparent momentum for banning the box, applications continue to feature the question. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the question remains at many Illinois institutions, public and private, including Columbia College, Northwestern University, all University of Illinois campuses, and DePaul, Eastern Illinois, Governors State, Illinois State and Western Illinois Universities.

The issue has been debated of late at Princeton University, showing both the intensifying push to ban the box -- and the way some college leaders continue to reject that argument.

Students for Prison Education and Reform is a group that has been pushing for the university to stop asking the question.

"What is the importance of banning the box? The box perpetuates structural racism and classism in American society," said a recent statement by the group. "By tying educational access to a fundamentally unfair and discriminatory criminal justice system, the box creates a formidable barrier to institutions of higher education that primarily impedes low-income and non-white students. Its presence on applications does not translate into increased safety on college campuses; it undermines the ability of qualified students to pursue their education if they are poor or people of color."

The statement also cited various studies to counter the argument that the question is needed on applications to protect students.

"Many proponents of the box argue that students with criminal records are dangerous, and that their exclusion promotes the safety of the college community as a whole," the statement said. "Yet, according to a study conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, colleges that do not collect or use criminal justice information are no less safe than colleges that do. Moreover, 96.7 percent of students who commit misdemeanors during their time at college have no prior conviction histories, while only 8.5 percent of students admitted with prior conviction histories go on to engage in misdemeanors."

But at a recent meeting of a campus advisory council, Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president at Princeton, defended the idea of keeping the question.

“I think there are some kinds of criminal activity that may be related to risks that could occur on the campus," he said, in an account in the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian (a statement whose accuracy was confirmed by the public relations office at the university). "So we take those risks seriously. We look at a number of positive indicia and evidence that students have done well in relationship to leadership and values that they have and we also look at things like school disciplinary records when we do that. I don’t see reasons to … ignore entirely evidence that somebody has engaged in criminal activity.”

Eisgruber indicated at the meeting that he would be open to finding other ways to ask the question. But student activists say that this won't eliminate their concerns.

Micah Herskind, president of Students for Prison Education and Reform, wrote an op-ed after Eisgruber spoke on the issue.

"By keeping the box -- regardless of its form -- we communicate our willingness to use racist and classist data in our admissions process," Herskind wrote. "By keeping the box, we send the message that while formerly incarcerated people might deserve an education, they certainly don’t deserve it at our university. And by keeping the box, we indicate our willing complicity as an additional arm of the criminal justice system, contributing to the ongoing punishment of those who have putatively already 'served their time.'"

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