The Ivy Coach Daily

May 20, 2024

Disclosing Criminal History in College Admissions

Students sit on the library steps of Columbia University.

For many years, college applicants with a criminal history were made to reveal this history on The Common App., which had a devastating impact on the likelihood that formerly-incarcerated individuals would attend a postsecondary institution. According to a study conducted by the Center for Community Alternative, 62.5% of State University of New York (SUNY) applicants who disclosed felony convictions did not submit a complete application, as compared to 21% of the entire applicant pool.

Significant progress was made on this front when The Common App. removed its criminal history question, a major victory for the “Ban the Box” movement, which seeks greater civil equality for the formerly incarcerated by removing criminal history questions from professional, residential, and educational applications. The movement has since gained even more momentum, with states such as Louisiana, Maryland, Washington, Virginia, and Delaware enacting laws “banning the box” in the public college admissions process. 

In perhaps the biggest win for the movement thus far, the U.S. Department of Education under President Biden recently endorsed the movement, calling for the removal of criminal history questions on college applications. To support this conclusion, the DOE cited research indicating that there is no statistically significant difference in campus safety at schools that probe criminal history versus schools that do not.

How the “Box” Lives on in College Supplements that Probe Criminal History

Despite these changes, most top schools still inquire into an applicant’s criminal history in the supplemental portion of a given application. According to the DOE, 72% of colleges require applicants to make this disclosure. Let’s take a look at how a few of the Ivy League universities gather this information:

Brown: Brown does ask for an applicant’s criminal history —“During our initial round of admission application reviews, Brown will suppress student responses to the criminal history question. Only after selecting a pool of admitted candidates will we review responses to this question. With this approach, information on criminal history can inform, but not determine, admission decisions.”

Columbia“All applicants seeking admission to the College are required to answer “Yes” or “No” to the following question (or similar question) that is included in the application for admission: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?” An affirmative answer to this question is not a disqualifier, but does initiate an additional review process.

Cornell: Cornell’s review process is as follows: “Following a protocol for reviewing applications involving students who have provided information about a misdemeanor or felony conviction; Considering information about a misdemeanor or felony conviction only after conducting an individualized and holistic review of the admissions application and determining sufficient potential for admission; and Providing applicants the opportunity to explain a misdemeanor or felony conviction and to submit supporting information from officials at an educational institution (e.g. secondary school or institution of higher education).”

These schools might claim that processes are in place to ensure a fair evaluation for those who disclose their criminal history, but the fact remains that the “box” is still alive and well at most highly selective private institutions, and there is no way to verify that criminal history does not adversely affect a promising application.

How Ivy Coach Reacts to the Double-Edged Sword of Criminal History Disclosure

We at Ivy Coach absolutely believe that every student should be given the opportunity to redeem themselves. An elite education opens up the door to greater self-actualization, professional advancement, and financial independence. No one should be denied this opportunity, and we do not buy into the idea that the formerly incarcerated make campuses less safe. 

We welcome the progress that the Ban the Box movement has made to increase educational access, but we also acknowledge that in an admissions landscape where acceptance rates at Ivy League schools are in the single digits, when thousands of extremely qualified applicants are denied from their dream schools each year, some admissions decisions may very well come down to the presence or absence of a criminal history. As such, we believe that students who have committed serious crimes, as opposed to nonviolent offenses, should not be admitted over equally-qualified applicants who have not committed such crimes.

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