College is important and could be especially critical for kids who have been in trouble. That's why a move to eliminate a question from college applications about the criminal records of college applicants is a laudable idea.
In 2011, Philadelphia enacted ban-the-box legislation — which was strengthened in 2016 — that makes it illegal for employers to ask whether a job applicant has a criminal record until they make an offer. According to Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the law led to an increased hiring of people with convictions on their records without an increase of complaints about job safety from employers.
Ban-the-box, however, doesn't apply to college applications.
According to a Community Legal Services report, most area universities ask about criminal records in some capacity and sometimes in very broad terms. For example, Temple University asks "Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?" and for the information of the incident for those who responded "yes." The application gives no information on whether, for example, sealed or expunged records should be disclosed or whether a positive answer would have bearing on college acceptance.
In areas where a felony conviction could be relevant to future employment and/or licensing, college counseling could play a role in advising students.
Last week, City Council's Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Curtis Jones, hosted a hearing on the subject. Advocates from CLS, the Reentry Think Tank, and PCHR made the case for removing the question about criminal background from college applications.
One concern is that qualified applicants would be discriminated against because of their criminal history. Some universities have policies to address that. For example, Drexel asks applicants for any criminal history but argue that in the first round of review that information is not taken into consideration. Criminal history is considered only if the candidate is deemed admissible.
But even the mere presence of the question might have a chilling effect on applicants. Looking into the application of the State University of New York system, which banned-the-box starting with the 2018 admission cycle, the Center for Community Alternatives found that more than 62 percent of those who disclosed a felony conviction ended up not completing the application.
More than anything else, removing the box from college applications is a way to mitigate some of the impact that race and class have on the criminal justice system. While all kids make mistakes, it's often black, brown, or low-income kids who end up with criminal records.
Banning the box from college applications could also promote public safety. In Missouri, for example, an associate's degree reduced recidivism rates from 60 percent to 14; a bachelor reduced it further to 6 percent.
There isn't much the city can do to compel area colleges to act, but the state might be able to. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state to enact a ban-the-box law for college applications — with a few exceptions.
Until the state legislature takes action, the decision lies with the universities. They should consider removing this potential obstacle for youth who might benefit the most from college.