No Crime in Asking

Study finds that students' pre-college criminal behavior does not predict that they will misbehave once on campus, raising questions about utility of background checks.

April 18, 2013

Roughly two-thirds of colleges elicit information about the criminal pasts of prospective students, either through questions on their application forms or, increasingly, through the use of background checks. But the inquiries do little to keep their campuses safer, a new study suggests.

The study (abstract available here), published in Injury Prevention and conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health, seeks to gauge whether information that colleges collect about students’ pre-college behavior reduces violence or other misbehavior on campuses.

The short answer: No. But the researchers note that the data aren't widespread enough to inform policy, and that the findings don't necessarily mean that there aren’t still reasons to ask students about their behavioral backgrounds – a point that some admissions officials reinforce.

Carol Runyan, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health and professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, analyzed the misconduct before and during college of students at an unnamed university in the South. (The study was conducted when Runyan and the other three authors worked at the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center, in Chapel Hill.)

The students' pre-college behavior was gauged by reviewing their answers to questions on the students' college applications about their criminal histories. Students were directed to report whether they had been convicted of crimes, taken responsibility for a crime, or had criminal charges pending at the time of their application, excluding minor traffic offenses.

The researchers had two methods of discerning on-campus misconduct. First, they examined disciplinary records in the dean's office, and counted all nonacademic honor code violations, which included sexual and physical assaults, thefts, etc.; alcohol-related violations that involved disruptive, disorderly or dangerous conduct; and charges that were dismissed by the honor court but successfully prosecuted in local courts. Second, they surveyed a random sample of the 6,972 graduating seniors in 2010 and 2011 about misconduct before and during college, and got some of those seniors to submit to criminal background checks. One hundred twenty students emerged from the review of disciplinary records, and 151 through the second method.

Students who had a history of pre-college criminal behavior were likelier than other students to engage in college misconduct, the researchers found. "In other words, precollege misconduct is a risk factor for college misconduct," they write.

But it does not follow, they say, that the methods that colleges now use to screen for those behaviors (questionnaires and, in some cases, criminal background checks) are effective at identifying, let alone preventing, misbehavior in college.

Only 3.3 percent of the seniors who engaged in misconduct while in college actually reported pre-college criminal histories during the admissions process. And 8.5 percent of applicants with a criminal history in high school engaged in misconduct while in college, the study found.

"The ability to screen at the time of application and weed out the bad apples just doesn’t exist," Runyan said in an interview. The study suggests that colleges should be careful about using their existing tools to screen people out of higher education, especially given inequity in how the criminal justice system functions.

Admissions officials whose institutions collect information on students' criminal backgrounds said they found the new study helpful in making it clear that there were risks in overdependence on such screening tools. "It certainly raises questions about the utility of these questions in keeping campuses safe," said Pam Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions at Purdue University.

But Horne said that colleges have other reasons for asking applicants about their pre-college misbehavior -- most notably to send them signals about how institutions wanted them to behave once on their campuses.

The application for admission is really valuable real estate, and it gives you a chance to express what some of your values are," she said. "When you put those kinds of questions in the first formal contact you're having, you're stating something about your institution and how you expect members of your academic community to treat each other."


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