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
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.