Unfair Admissions Criteria?

Study finds colleges are considering high school disciplinary records, largely without policies about when such information is relevant.

May 26, 2015

Most colleges are considering applicants' high school disciplinary records, even without formal policies on what role these records should play in admissions decisions, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives.

A draft report accompanying the survey builds on the center's work questioning whether colleges are too quick to rule out qualified applicants because of something they did in their high school years that may be irrelevant to their chances of academic success.

"In the absence of data that show how many students are accepted or rejected once they disclose a disciplinary record, it is not enough for college admissions counselors to offer assurances that a school disciplinary record is not likely to impede admission to college," says the report draft. "Moreover, vague assurances will do little to assuage the fears of students who are the most vulnerable to school suspension -- poor students of color, whose life experiences have subjected them to exclusion in many social domains."

The center's survey of colleges was drafted in conjunction with two groups that represent admissions leaders and encouraged participation in the survey -- the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Key findings were:

  • Almost three-quarters of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information (many through the question on the subject included on the Common Application).
  • Of those that collect the information, 89 percent report that they use the information in admissions decisions.
  • Of the colleges that collect the information, only 25 percent have formal, written policies on how to use the information.
  • Only 30 percent of colleges have trained their admissions staff to interpret disciplinary violation findings.

Rejection isn't the only possible outcome of colleges overreacting to high school disciplinary violations, the report says. In some cases, colleges are admitting applicants but based on high school records barring them from campus housing.

The center's report doesn't rule out the possibility that there are some cases where a past record may be relevant to a college's decisions. But the report argues that, in many cases, this record shouldn't be used -- and that any use requires, in fairness to applicants, that colleges have clear policies and train staff members on how to use them.

The issue of whether high school disciplinary infractions are relevant to college admissions has long challenged both high schools and colleges. Many fear that a minor misdeed of a high school freshman could unreasonably hurt an applicant. But many also worry that someone who might pose a danger to fellow students could be admitted without the college knowing the risks.

A related debate is whether colleges should ask about and consider applicants' criminal backgrounds. Students at Princeton University last year urged the institution (without success) to stop asking about applicants' criminal past, arguing that the criminal justice system is unfair to many minority, low-income people, such that a conviction may not mean anything.

New York University on Saturday announced a change in its admissions policies that reflects some of the issues raised by the new report on disciplinary records. NYU is a Common Application institution that thus obtains information about applicants' criminal and disciplinary pasts. With regard to criminal convictions, NYU will now do a first round of evaluations without knowledge of whether applicants checked the box indicating a criminal record.

But before an offer of admission is extended, a second review will take place in which the information will be shared with an admissions team "specially trained" on how to evaluate such information, including the potential of bias in various parts of the process. Previously this information was available to admissions officers throughout the process, as is the norm at many institutions.

A statement from MJ Knoll-Finn, vice president of enrollment management at NYU, spoke of trying to "strike a balance" on the issue.

“Colleges and universities are places that believe in the power of learning to change lives, and that believe in second chances, especially for those who may have made mistakes at a young age," Knoll-Finn said. "And we are aware of the concerns being raised on a national level about the sometimes disparate impact of the criminal justice system. But the members of our community and the parents of our students also have a reasonable expectation that the university will do all it can to provide a safe learning environment for our students."

The center's report -- which urges colleges to stop asking about high school disciplinary records -- notes that these records may well cover infractions that aren't close to criminal.

An editorial in The New York Times endorsed the report's recommendations both that colleges stop considering the high school records and that high schools stop turning over the information. "The notion of penalizing college applicants for minor misbehavior when they were 14 or 15, when a child’s impulse control is notoriously weak, is unfair on its face," says the editorial.

But Todd Rinehart, associate vice chancellor and director of admission at the University of Denver, and chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, said via email that he shared the center's concerns about the potential for inappropriate use by admissions officers of high school disciplinary records. But he questioned whether this is happening -- and whether colleges can't determine when the information matters.

"Colleges and universities are using information on discipline in a very thoughtful and careful manner, considering the severity of a behavior, patterns of behavior, when the incident occurred, and within the overall context of many other factors. Admission committees aren’t denying students access to higher education, but they have the prerogative to determine who is the best match for their respective institutions," he said.

He said that while there are issues associated with evaluating high school disciplinary infractions, "the solution isn’t to put our heads in the sand, ignoring personal qualities and characteristics that may be telling us a student isn’t ready for college, but rather to continue examining the systemic barriers that exist in our secondary and postsecondary institutions and to identify paths for students to enter college at a later date, when personal and academic abilities match the expectations and rigor of a particular school."

Michael V. Reilly, executive director of AACRAO, said via email that the association has not taken a position on the use of high school disciplinary decisions in college admissions. But he said that he was personally sympathetic to many of the points made in the report.

"We have raised similar concerns about racial disparities in both high school and juvenile justice systems as well as the fact that colleges and universities have implemented these practices without developing policies for their use," Reilly said. "There does not appear to be evidence that screening students via their disciplinary records has made campuses safer. As a former admissions director I don't know that I had the expertise to be able to distinguish between a real threat to the community and a young person who was caught in an unfair system and who might benefit the most from a college education. My advice to campuses who are collecting this information is to read this report and ask whether their practice is appropriate given the many inconsistencies in the high school justice system."

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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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