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Inside Higher Education
Still Asking About Crime and Discipline
Common Application will keep questions some have urged it to drop, but says it will add more information and context to the process.
By Scott Jaschik
March 10, 2017

The Common Application announced Thursday that it will maintain questions about applicants' criminal background and disciplinary records, rejecting a push to drop the questions. At the same time, the Common Application -- the dominant player in competitive college admissions -- said that it would provide more context about the questions, including the ability of colleges to suppress answers to those questions.

Many colleges have for years included questions about criminal backgrounds and disciplinary records on their applications. The Common App has been asking about criminal records since 2006. In the last two years, however, many groups have been urging colleges to drop the question, noting the discrimination faced by young minority individuals in the criminal justice system and a lack of evidence that colleges are trained to analyze the answers or to tell whether someone in fact poses a threat because of a past criminal record.

The Education Department (under the Obama administration) urged colleges to reconsider their use of the question. Some Common App members urged the organization to do so. And the State University of New York in September decided, based in part on research that qualified students were not applying because of the question, to drop it.

The Common App's criminal question asks, "Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?"

An email that the Common Application sent to members Thursday said of the criminal question that "the solution we implement must meet the diverse needs of our 700 members while also being responsive to the concerns of students and counselors. Specifically, we want to provide a solution that affords members the ability to ask what they are required to ask, either by institutional policy or state law; provides members the ability to describe their policy or practice if they do not wish to ask or use the question in their admission process; and that communicates requirements to students and counselors."

So the Common App will continue to require answers to the question but will add more information about how colleges may or may not use the question and stress that answering in the affirmative does not disqualify an applicant. (A similar approach is being used for disciplinary issues in high school).

Colleges will be able to say if and how they use the information and will continue to have an option to suppress, meaning they would not see the applicant's answers to the question. The option isn't new, but the Common App is planning to make it easier to figure out which institutions suppress. Currently about 50 of the Common App's 700 members do so.

Marsha Weissman, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives, a group that has criticized criminal record questions, said she was not impressed with the Common App's announcement.

"Many people who see the question just don't go down the road of finishing an application," she said. Weissman said that any college asking the question should be able to demonstrate that the answers on the question provide meaningful security to a campus and are not just based on stereotypes of those with a criminal record.

She said the additional information the Common App plans to provide would simply be "platitudes" and does not respond to the concerns her group and the Education Department have expressed.


 
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