Is a Criminal Past Relevant?

Some Princeton students push university to stop asking whether applicants have been convicted of anything. They say academe needs more people with experience in the justice system.

March 11, 2014

From time to time, colleges face scrutiny over whether they are aware of the criminal backgrounds of prospective students. The 2004 murder of a University of North Carolina at Wilmington student by a classmate who had attacked women before, for example, led to a lawsuit that led the UNC system to require its campuses to conduct criminal background checks on students whose records suggested possible risks.

Princeton University is having a different sort of debate. The university, through the Common Application, asks applicants whether they have a criminal background. A campus group -- Students for Prison Education and Reform -- is organizing a petition drive urging Princeton to stop using that question.

"The United States criminal justice system is inequitable and ineffective. In light of the racial and economic discrimination perpetuated by U.S. justice institutions, we believe that past involvement with the justice system should not be used to evaluate personal character or academic potential. We call upon Princeton University to remove the question about past involvement with the justice system from applications for undergraduate admission," says the petition.

Not only is asking the question unfair, the group argues, but it may limit an important kind of diversity on Princeton's campus.

"Individuals with past involvement with the justice system would bring distinct perspectives to Princeton," the group says. "Approximately one-quarter of U.S. adults have a criminal record. A lack of interaction with this stigmatized population fosters deep misunderstandings about the nature of the criminal justice system and those affected by it. We believe that by eliminating questions related to past involvement with the justice system, Princeton can open the door to increased diversity of experience and perspective among the student body without compromising its academic quality or moral character."

The group further argues that there is no compelling evidence that those with a criminal past are more likely than others to commit crimes. And others question whether those with a criminal past report themselves anyway.

The question asked of Princeton applicants and others who use the Common Application is this: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime? Note that you are not required to answer 'yes' to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise ordered by a court to be kept confidential."

Students must answer yes or no, and those who answer yes must also provide a written explanation.

Through March 6 of the 2013-14 admissions cycle, 3,765 applicants (to all colleges in the Common Application, not just Princeton) answered yes. That's 0.48 percent of applicants.

The breakdown of those applicants shows that roughly an equal number were first-year vs. transfer applicants (1,872 vs. 1,893). But because the vast majority of those using the Common Application are first-year applicants, the percentages of applicants reporting a criminal background is much higher among transfer applicants (2.62 percent) than first-year applicants (0.26 percent).

Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton, defended the practice of asking the question, but via email stressed that admission isn't ruled out for those who answer yes.

"We try to learn as much as we can about each applicant," she said. "If an applicant has been cited for misconduct or convicted of a crime we believe we should know this, but just as important we want to know the circumstances and reasons which we ask about in the additional essay. We take all of this information into account in our holistic review of the applicant."

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security On Campus, also supports the question's use. "If we are going to hold campuses to a standard to contribute to a safer environment for students then they should be permitted to ask that question," she said.

While Princeton shows no sign of changing its position, there are groups that have been pushing for an end of any admissions consideration of an applicant's criminal past. A report by the Center for Community Alternatives, for example, said that a criminal record can be due to many factors, including a less-than-just justice system that punishes black and Latino youth far more than it does others. The report also questioned whether there was evidence to show that asking the question has made campuses safer.

"Studies show that a college education dramatically reduces recidivism," the report says. "Colleges and universities promote public safety when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue a college education."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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