A Valid Question to Ask

Colleges shouldn't abandon the practice of asking applicants to disclose disciplinary records, writes Pamela Brown. But admissions officers need to be trained on how to evaluate the answers.

August 24, 2015

The Center for Community Alternatives’ report on the use of prospective students’ high school disciplinary behavior records in the college admissions review process exposes the wild, wild west that exists with high schools and their disciplinary policies. Both the school-by-school variations in reasons for suspending or expelling students and the differing methods for reporting such information understandably raise concerns about negative implications of the collection and use of such information.

Particularly troubling is the impact that differing disciplinary policies and practices have had on students, primarily underrepresented students, beyond high school. However, CCA’s recommendation that colleges cease any consideration of student discipline as part of the application review process is an irresponsible solution to a problem that requires a more judicious approach. Disciplinary behavior information is important for legal and public safety reasons and is often obtained and used without harming campus diversity.

As an admissions officer at a public four-year institution that serves an urban population, I am always concerned that our admission policies not create barriers for minority students. At my institution, high school applicants are required to provide transcripts and test scores. They also have to indicate whether they have been subject to disciplinary action at their secondary institution and/or have a misdemeanor or felony.

I know the admissions process is often mysterious and daunting, even without requiring supplemental information such as personal essays and recommendation forms, especially for underrepresented students. Requiring criminal history information adds to the fear some applicants have about how they will be viewed during the decision review process. I have spoken with students and parents who are concerned with how disciplinary and/or criminal disclosure information is used in the admissions process, and whether it is necessary, especially if the person has already paid their so-called dues to society. I also have seen a difference between punishments imposed on applicants, and have heard applicants express frustration with biases they have experienced, based on race.

Thus the CCA’s concerns over how this information could come to play in the review are important, but they do not warrant abandoning an often carefully considered process that serves a valid purpose in higher education admissions. Checking a box stating that the student faced disciplinary actions while in high school does not have to be the end of a student’s dream to obtain a college degree.

As a matter of both policy and process, the collection of disciplinary information during the admission process serves an important function in higher education for at least two reasons. First, part of assessing admissibility involves making a determination about character. Students involved in cheating, for instance, may not stack up as favorably as students who have earned their grades honestly.

Second, while some disciplinary disclosures are now required for campus life purposes (and therefore not necessarily used as a factor in admission decisions), there are institutions where the admission process and the enrollment/matriculation process are one and the same. So banning any consideration of disciplinary information in admission presents a procedural obstacle to fulfilling requirements many campuses must meet under state laws and universitywide policies. For instance, changes were made to Indiana law in 2014 restricting the use of expunged criminal history records in the hiring and academic admissions process. This prompted Indiana University to adopt a universal criminal history policy for all campuses.

For reasons such as these, the CCA’s recommendations fall far short of a solution to the problem they rightly identify. I would prefer that higher education focus on CCA’s point about the assessment of disciplinary information by “untrained” professionals, which is something that admissions professionals and their professional associations are well poised to address.

Each institution should adopt its own uniform policy for all applicants requiring the disclosure of any disciplinary action taken against them at another school or college. A collaboration of personnel from admissions, other enrollment services offices and the dean of students/student affairs and legal counsel could be required to write, monitor and review a comprehensive policy, and thereby address concerns related to balancing legal and public safety concerns with diversity recruitment initiatives. Having the same staff responsible for reviewing the disclosures would address the arbitrary decision making by “untrained” staff that CCA notes as a limitation to the review process.

Under well-developed and researched policies, institutional admissions staff could be trained on how to differentiate between those behaviors that would be considered normal teenage behavior versus those actions that, if repeated, would be a potential threat to campus safety. It would be important to emphasize during training the disciplinary review process is not an opportunity for the campus to readjudicate the student for past behavior. Such training would almost assuredly be the subject of ongoing discussion in the professional community that groups like CCA could strongly influence.

Having a policy under which students are asked to disclose information about past behavior and using it in the review process does not automatically guarantee a safer campus. However, the legal ramifications of not collecting information, or receiving it involuntarily and not using it to make an informed decision, should be compelling enough to persuade any institution of the wisdom of an unbiased, uniform and nonjudgmental collection of information about high school disciplinary behavior.


Pamela Brown is associate director of undergraduate admissions at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


Back to Top