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The issue of whether colleges should ask applicants if they have felony convictions has sharply divided colleges. A majority of four-year institutions do so.

They say that basic safety needs require that they ask the question -- although they admit that training is needed in how to analyze such a report (training that most colleges lack).

Still, the push to "ban the box" (referring to the box applicants check if they have a criminal history) remains strong. The Common Application last year dropped the question. The State University of New York did so in 2016. Under the Obama administration, the Education Department urged colleges to think hard about dropping the box, but that push has not continued in the Trump administration.

Now a study arrives -- published in the journal Criminology -- that raises questions about the policies of colleges. The study is by Robert Stewart, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, and Christopher Uggen, the Martindale Chair in Sociology and Law at Minnesota.

They submitted applications to 280 noncompetitive colleges (that they did not name) -- with two notable differences. One is that half reported a nonviolent felony conviction (taking DVDs, aiding and abetting a $3 burglary) and half did not. The other is that those who answered the criminal history conviction in the affirmative had slightly stronger academic records in high school. They checked the box for felony convictions for half of the students. And they found a real gap -- 10 percent of those who didn't report a felony were rejected while 33 percent who said they had committed a felony were rejected.

But at colleges with high crime rates, as defined by the Clery Act, the rate was 28 percent for white applicants; for blacks, the rate was 34 percent. College officials apparently were more worried about black applicants than white applicants.

How did the researchers assemble their pool?

They started by advertising to find potential applicants, and they recruited real people. Then they prepared the actual applications that either did or didn't have a felony. They wrote explanations for the felonies where asked, making the explanations ones that would encourage admission.

"We're not trying to target any specific colleges," said Stewart. The patterns were very similar among the colleges in the sample, which was of four-year institutions with geographic reach, he said.

But the colleges had some things in common. They did not appear to train their admissions staff on handling applicants with felonies. That's important, given that in answering the question "do you have felony background," the applicants answered yes. But these were not violent felonies.

What if the felonies were more serious, such as for sexual assault? Stewart said he is wary of saying it would be OK to reject such students.

"It's the criminal justice system" that should be punishing people, not colleges, he said.

The striking thing about the study, Stewart said, is that it's not about the most serious kinds of felonies.

"As a result of asymmetric matching, our results are conservative by design," the study says. "Had we instead included testers with equally or matched educational credentials, it is likely the impact of the felony record would be larger. Similarly, we would also expect a greater impact for individuals presenting more extensive or more serious criminal histories than the single low-level simple robbery and burglary felonies presented by our testers. These results should thus be interpreted as a baseline measure of discrimination against college applicants with criminal records."

The study concludes, "Our results expose a significant aftereffect of criminal justice involvement. Education has classically been viewed as a pathway to escape poverty and enhance social mobility, but it cannot fulfill this function if institutions systematically disqualify applicants disproportionately drawn from communities of color. Although the race differences observed in the educational setting are less pronounced compared with previous audits of employers, we note that the level of applicants with records is far greater among blacks even if the effects of these records are roughly proportional to those for whites."

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