The American community college is heralded for its open-doors mission, welcoming learners of all ages and backgrounds to improve their lives and communities through education. Yet certain students find they are not always welcome: those who were impacted by the criminal justice system, including formerly incarcerated students and those with criminal records. Such students face significant barriers to college access and completion -- ranging from background checks to inadequate student services -- which we have observed through our research and experiences as community college administrators.
The economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic make it an especially crucial time for community college leaders to address the needs of these students. Unemployment has reached historic levels across the country among people of color and those without college credentials. People with criminal records -- who are more likely to be people of color and have less education, and who already experience employment discrimination -- face particular hardships during this time. Like other out-of-work Americans, they may turn to community colleges to reskill and improve their job prospects, and colleges must be ready to serve them.
While most institutions have a lot to learn about how to better serve justice-impacted students, some community colleges have already implemented innovative programs and policies to help these students succeed. Drawing on the best examples and our research -- including recent interviews with community college students -- we propose four steps community college leaders can take now to support the academic, career and personal needs of justice-impacted students.
No. 1: Ensure open access. Higher education institutions commonly establish policies that make students ineligible for admission or other benefits based on criminal history. Colleges are legally allowed to ask about criminal convictions on admissions applications, and most four-year universities have done so since the Common App added a criminal history question in 2006, which it then dropped starting with the 2019-20 application. Only recently have a handful of states passed laws to “ban the box” on applications, the most recent being Oregon in June.
Although less common than at universities, some community colleges use this process to deny admission to students with certain convictions. Similarly, some community colleges that offer campus housing conduct background checks and deny housing to students based on the results. In addition, background checks can be used to deny students campus employment and work-study jobs. While federal or state laws may require background checks for housing and employment in some cases, a number of colleges have implemented such screening policies without legal mandate. To deliver on their open-doors promise, community colleges must eliminate exclusionary admissions policies and re-evaluate background check policies to ensure that justice-impacted students have fair opportunities for campus housing and employment.
No. 2: Make legal services free and readily available. Students with criminal records often face continuing legal challenges, including the process of seeking record expungement and sealing. Student legal services -- whereby institutions hire lawyers to provide legal advice to college students -- have long been common at large universities but are less so at community colleges. Several models exist that could help justice-impacted students. Some community colleges draw on their institutional legal departments to provide free legal clinics to students. Others hire staff members or contract with community providers to offer on-campus legal services, sometimes paid by student activity fees. If colleges are unable to provide direct legal services, posting information about local legal aid organizations on college websites can be valuable.
No. 3: Recognize that justice-impacted students have distinct needs and address them through targeted support services. The cultural and structural stigmas associated with a criminal record can leave students feeling isolated, unsupported and undeserving of a meaningful college experience. Creating safe spaces through targeted wraparound services provides students with outlets to disclose their past justice involvement and support each other in overcoming academic and life challenges as well as in adjusting to college life. Comprehensive programs designed for these students can include a variety of key elements: admission and registration support, tutoring services, resources for financial and nonacademic needs, learning communities, student clubs, mentoring, and support from professional staff with experience in the criminal legal system, among others.
No. 4: Provide justice-impacted students specialized advice on majors and career options. Incomplete or bad advice can waste time and money. For example, background checks are common in the health and human services programs and other programs that lead to licensed professions, and justice-impacted students need straightforward guidance on their likelihood of success. Without it, students sometimes hit roadblocks near the end of their programs when their convictions prevent them from completing internships or field placement requirements.
Academic and career advisers must be trained to help students avoid fields that are not open to them. Colleges should also be prepared to offer specialized advising aimed at building student confidence and providing tools to combat obstacles associated with their backgrounds, such as completing job applications, responding to questions during job interviews and gaining admission to four-year institutions.
Community colleges were built on the idea of accessibility and creating a diverse and skilled workforce. Helping people with criminal convictions to achieve their academic and professional goals should be part of that mission. Justice-impacted students are said to bring gifts to college campuses: rich personal experiences, social perspectives and academic potential. They only need community colleges to embrace those gifts and deliver on their promise.