May 11, 2011

"Want to study here? Let me look at your record": PRI features Dr. Weissman on the Use of Records in the Application Process

Last Friday, at the Prisoner Reentry Institute's Occassional Series on Reentry, Dr. Marsha Weissman of the Center for Community Alternatives presented on the increasing use of criminal records in the college application process.  Interestingly, this issue became of increasing concern to the Center for Community Alternatives in 2004 when colleges began accepting the common application. Their clients, excited to return to school, began asking, "How do I answer the criminal conviction question?"  Prior to the common application, few schools' own applications asked the much dreaded question.

Dr. Marsha argued that the racial disparities in the criminal justice system coupled with the justice system's expansion undermines the civil rights movement's goal of access to higher education.  Without any empiral evidence that students who have had contact with the justice system are riskier to campus public safetly, the use of records to weed out potential candidates is a policy that not only unfairly discriminates, but may serve as a threat to public safety by inhibiting access to the most effective crime reducing tool-education.

Based on a study conducted by CCA partnered and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), of the 292 of surveyed schools of undergraduate level or higher, 74% of schools require criminal record self-disclosure and 20% of colleges conduct background checks.  69% of surveyed schools have special requirements for applicants with criminal justice histories that range from offering a letter of explanation,  to providing the production of an official rap sheet which has information otherwise unobtainable to the public. 61% of colleges have some type of CJI related automatic bars to admission for certain types of convictions.

According to Dr. Wesissman, 53% of colleges that collect and use criminal histories in their decision making policies and 60% have no training on interpreting criminal records. For those of us who have seen a RAP sheet, this is especially troubling.  RAP sheets frequently contain errors, include the initial charge in addition to the charge for which the individual is convicted, contain information that is supposed to be sealed, and are generally extremely confusing documents.

Among CCA's practice recommendations are:
  • Remove CJI disclosure from initial application
  • Limit disclosure to specific convictions
  • Allow people still on community supervision to enroll if otherwise qualified
  • Establish fair and evidence-based admissions criteria
  • Use unbiased and well informed assessments
To read the full report pubished by CCA, click here.