The national push for criminal justice reform is finally reaching core parts of American universities.
In an announcement on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King made public a new policy proposal in which he asked colleges to stop asking applicants about their criminal records during early stages of the admissions process. Since a disproportionate amount of people charged with crimes are minorities, the questions place an unfair burden on people of color who are trying to turn their lives around and go to school, he argued.
“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” King said in a statement. “We must ensure that more people … have the chance at higher education opportunities.”
Along with the new proposal, the Department of Education is sending out guides urging college presidents across the country to follow the federal government's lead. The guide is dubbed "Beyond the Box"—a seeming extension of the "Ban the Box" movement that has swept the country, which asks employers to avoid asking questions about criminal history from the first step of the hiring process.
Last November, President Obama issued an executive order banning federal employers from asking about applicants' criminal histories in the first step of the hiring process.
“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process, you’re more likely to be hired," Obama commented to inmates during a visit to a federal prison last year.
The same goes for young people applying to colleges, argues Secretary King. Studies have shown that past offenders tend not to complete the college application process when repeatedly asked about past convictions.
About 66% of universities collect information about potential students' criminal histories, despite more than half of them not having a written policy about how those results affect admissions, according to the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit which focuses on juvenile and criminal justice issues.
In a separate 2013 study, college admissions officials were more likely to report that they would "probably or definitely" not admit an otherwise qualified applicant who had a criminal history, compared to officials from schools that don't use "the box."
Part of the problem is that over 600 colleges and universities across the nation use the "Common Application" form for admissions. The de-facto standard asks students to disclose prior convictions.
An issue with the federal government's announcement is that it is merely a suggestion the federal government is making to schools and organizations like Common Application, hoping that they will follow suit.
Another is that the FAFSA, the federal form that students fill out to get financial aid, still asks about criminal history. “Members of Congress are revisiting the question,” Kim Hunter Reed, deputy undersecretary of education, told the Los Angeles Times.
Momentum for broadly banning the box in education has been ramping up steam for some time, mostly in the state of New York. Students at New York University have held several recent protests calling on banning the box in school admissions. The New York Bar Association has called for a ban on the practice in January; the New York Times editorial board asked colleges to ban the box the following month. There are two proposed bills in the state legislature that would ban the box for state schools as a matter of policy.
King's announcement was made at the University of California, "because he considers the [school] to be a model system in this regard," reported the Los Angeles Times. The UC system already doesn't ask students about their criminal history.
But while it remains to be seen the actual impact the announcement will have, some are hopeful that the federal government taking a firm stance on the issue will lead to broader change.
“I know firsthand that a second chance is a powerful thing – and today’s announcement ensures that millions of Americans have another shot at a bright future," Vivian Nixon, a former inmate a criminal justice reform advocate who focuses on educational issues, told Fusion in an emailed statement.
"I applaud the Administration’s efforts to support formerly incarcerated individuals who are trying to better their lives through higher education. When colleges and universities think 'beyond the box,' they recognize that all people – regardless of their pasts – have the potential to flourish with access to education," she wrote.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.