Overcoming Hurdles to Higher Education for Students with a Criminal Record

A few days ago, I accompanied a formerly incarcerated college applicant to his second admission interview at a State University of New York community college in upstate New York. The applicant was asked to sit at the head of a long boardroom table, flanked by seven college administrators including the Director of Campus Police, the Chair of the Criminal Justice Department, Director of Admissions, Director of Students Services, Director of Counseling Services, Director of Tutoring Services and the Director of Multi-Cultural Affairs. He was asked to speak in detail about the robbery he committed at age 16, a crime for which he had served ten years in prison (he’s been crime-free ever since).

The applicant handled himself well, and after a brief deliberation was told that he had been admitted to the college. While delighted at being admitted, the interview experience was traumatic for him. Later, he told me that he “felt like he was sitting in front of a parole board again."

Although no link has been established between having a criminal record and posing a risk to campus safety, increasing numbers of colleges and universities throughout the nation are requesting criminal justice information during the college application process. This is taking place despite the evidence on the numerous benefits of a college education during and after prison. The majority of colleges collecting CJI (Criminal Justice Information) are private and four-year schools, including the 414 colleges that use the Common Application. SUNY, the nation’s largest comprehensive system of public higher education, also requests CIJ on all admissions applications.

For the college applicant, the consequences of reporting prior convictions range from blanket rejection for those with criminal records, to a range of screening procedures, including submission of rap sheets (conviction records), applicant essays, letters from parole officers and prison superintendents, interviews with security personnel and more. These policies create significant systemic barriers to college access for millions of men and women who are attempting to turn their lives around through higher education – one of the most powerful deterrents to crime and re-incarceration.

For those who apply to college after prison, admissions barriers compound the consequences of a criminal conviction long after the sentence is served. In my experience as a prison/post-prison educator for the past 30 years, for the most part, these barriers are counterproductive. While the young man I spoke of earlier is now a new SUNY student, I’ve seen too many others who have been intimidated by the application process and did not enroll in college—one of the most powerful pathways to a successful, crime-free life.


I assume that the bizarre thought process of these colleges and universities is that these students pose a potential threat to the safety of other students, faculty, and staff. I wonder then if programs like the College Initiative Program could document ANY student who upon admission into a higher education program proved to be a threat or displayed violence in the college setting. I'm confident that no such incident has taken place. Indeed, if you can get access to college records of students who were dismissed because of negative behavior; NONE of them would be students involved in reentry. We have to suspect that there is a racial and class component to these distructive admission policies.

I know there are better ways then warehousing people that can lead to better lives. This blog really hits that nail on the head toward understanding the possibilities and how barriers must be brought down. good work.

I recall when I enrolled college in 2003 the fact that I was an ex-offender was kept like if it was some dark secret and at the time the college wasnt sure if I would be eligible for finacial aid. I am glad to say I made it :) However, having to keep the fact that I was an ex-offender made me feel as if though I was welcomed in society as if I was an outcast. I am glad to see now that there are more ex-offenders going to college and beating the odds

Are there laws governing the admissions processes or is it up to each college to develop their own?

As far as I am aware, there are no state or federal laws that specifically prohibit discrimination in higher education admissions based upon criminal history records. However, there should be. Putting protections in place for people with criminal convictions is an issue that people around the country need to organize around and a debate that should be pushed to the forefront. In the same way that states are beginning to pass laws to prevent discrimination in employment, we need laws that prohibit discrimination in college admissions.

The Center for Community Alternatives in New York has taken the lead on issues related to college admissions barriers. Their 2010 report, The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered, examines the collateral consequences of criminal convictions for college access. Some of their recommendations include:
(a) Remove CJI disclosure requirement from initial application for admission.
(b) Limit disclosure requirement to specific types of convictions.
(c) Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based.
(d) Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well informed and unbiased.
(e) Establish procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process.
(f) Offer support and advocacy to students with former convictions.

Additionally, there are some lawyers around the country who are developing legal theories that would impose liability on colleges that do discriminate, based upon equal protection rights and disparate impact. This legal work is in the infant stages.

At this point, colleges are left to make their own policies about the use of criminal history records. Some have created absolute bars for some crimes or even all felonies. Some prevent people on community supervision (parole) to attend. On the other hand, there are colleges, including the City University of New York (CUNY), that have refused to follow this trend based upon an understanding that barriers to higher education compound the consequences of a criminal conviction long after the sentence is served.

As a formerly incarcerated student enrolled in college at the moment, I am particularly interested in this topic. I am lucky that I live in NYC and attend CUNY. As Benay points out, CUNY does not even ask the dreaded question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" on its application. However, I relate to Adria's post about how she felt that her conviction was a "dark secret" at school.

It is difficult to know how to combat the very complicated circumstances that make a criminal conviction so difficult to discuss openly. We are bombarded constantly by media that circulates simplistic "good guys/bad guys" narratives--which are highly racialized, of course--with no appreciation for the structural factors that lead to crime, and virtually no attention at all given to the lives of people who have served their sentences and gone on to lead productive lives, lives of service to others even. These simplistic, sensationalized narratives perpetuate the view that people with criminal convictions are threats to public safety, which, as Dr. Mazza points out above, is likely the logic behind why colleges and universities place barriers on people with convictions. Of course, media isn't the only problem. There is also the widely propagated and often repeated statistics concerning recidivism, which when broken down and purged of people who returned for parole violations are not nearly as high as we always hear, and when looked at closely, show that people with the most serious convictions recidivate at minuscule rates. And then, there is the mystique surrounding prison, the idea that serving time utterly "changes" people, and not in a good way.

I bring these few issues up--and there are more--to say that the crucial and necessary work on policy has to be complemented by broader efforts. We need to figure out how to influence public perception. As Adria says, the fact that there are more and more of us going to college and "beating the odds" will hopefully help. We also need more academics to publish work that questions, rather than accepts at face value, recidivism statistics and that focuses on other areas of prison and reentry issues.

I'm in my final semester of my BA and plan to apply to PhD programs in anthropology, where I hope to do ethnographic work on the circulation of bodies, ideologies, goods, services, monies, and cultural products between impoverished urban areas and rural prison towns, which were formerly middle class but seem increasingly to be slipping lower down the SES scale under our increasingly neo-liberal economic policies. That is, I hope to do such work if programs don't ban me from admission based on my 15-year-old conviction.

I am grateful to Benay for provoking this discussion.

Robert makes a very good point about recidivism.

As we pointed out in CCA's recent report on this issue which can be found on our website, despite the general recidivism rate, with regard to that self-selected group of people who have criminal history records and who make the very significant life choice to go to college, there is simply no empirical evidence that they offend while students on campus at any higher rate than their fellow students who do not have criminal history records. There are some compelling reasons that explain why this is the case.

In fact we are working on a hypothesis that students with criminal history records who attend college offend at a lower rate than their counterparts without criminal history records. Assuming that this hypothesis is correct there is no justification for criminal history screening in college admissions.

Next week we will be presenting our report and hypothesis at the national conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Alan Rosenthal
Co-Director of Justice Strategies at
Cener for Community Alternatives

I will attempt to "justify" the criminal history screening in college admissions and take you for a virtual drive on either 5 or 99 highways between Los Angeles and San Francisco/Sacramento, California. Any turn you would take between those two highways, you would inevitably drive by a highly overcrowded either state or federal penitentiary. The main focus of keeping these institutions is jobs creation for not "tremendously" highly educated prison employees, who, after 10 years or so on the job at an exceptionally high salary, will get also exceptionally high life pensions and benefits.

Yes, it does bankrupt California and the Federal Government, but again, what other jobs will these people perform? For more intellectually challenging jobs you would need a higher education and a hard work of achieving it. Wasn't it an easier way out for many politicians to just lock up a large segment of population, deny them college education, so they would easily re-offend, and lock them up again, thereby creating jobs for the other segment of population, who are justified in their thinking that it's easier to spend 10 or so years as a prison guard and then have a lifetime pension along with other benefits at no strenuous exercise to mental organs?

Thank you for your interest in this subject, Alan. In late 1990, I have presented a subject of the largest in the world (after Russia at that time) prison population in the U.S. as my term paper in college. I read my paper in front of my class and received very little interest from either the prof or the students. Now, it is changing thanks to folks like you, albeit a bit late, when states like California is almost bankrupt because of unfunded liabilities.

I did a little research on the matter- considering some have called Tulane Law School irresponsible for admitting me. There is an excellent 2008 article in the Journal of College and Education Law: BACKGROUND CHECKS IN THE UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS PROCESS: AN OVERVIEW OF LEGAL AND POLICY CONSIDERATIONS, by Darby Dickinson. Of course those of us pursuing (and earning) educations are less likely to return to prison. The key to stopping recidivism is rehabilitation; the key to rehabilitation is education.

Those of us with convictions become accustomed to doing it for ourselves. We either do it with an education, possibly forging our own businesses, or we do it through the streets. Working for others is increasingly difficult.

The key is to ask community leaders, including political, faith, business, and education leaders: What do you propose for those returning from prison? Why would you create a barrier to self-empowerment- especially when it impacts entire communities? What do you propose to generate positive outcomes for low-income communities of color? Without a conscious effort, such communities become colonized with external controls while a major segment of our best and brightest become ostracized and outcasted.

I hope the education field comes to universally applaud the courage of Tulane by letting me, and my terrible past (19 years ago), into their prestigious law school. It is not about me, it is about the systemic issues which are well reflected here.

And yes, some with records have indeed committed acts of violence- but criminal history is a very poor indicator of future violence (particularly among those who have labored into higher ed). With thousands of former prisoners going to college, there will be high profile exceptions.

But I can relate to the brother feeling back at the parole board. I'm currently under more public criticism than when I committed my crime. My advice to anybody else: get used to being held to a much higher standard, and recognize what will always be "normal" for ourselves. If other people accept or forgive or change: that is their choice, not yours. Be stronger than a prison wall.

Note: By "excellent" article, I mean the author lays out the position of those who advocate background checks, and gets into a bit about the current practices and legal authority. Its not that I think the article is something those of us who advocate for diverse education to stand behind.

It is difficult to respond because one cannot draw broad generalities from the actions of one person. The fact that thousands of people with criminal history records successfully complete their college education and go on to have successful and contributory lives cannot be outweighed by the act of one person, nor would screening out all of these thousands of people with criminal history records be justified by the possibility that one person with a criminal history record would be prevented from committing a crime on campus. In fact, that same person may commit that very same crime on or off campus, regardless of whether they were admitted as a student.

In a like manner, because the occasional rogue police officer goes out and commits a murder, does not stop us from deploying cops.

It is why zero tolerance policies make no sense - we end up punishing denying access to tens of thousands, because we fear the 1 in a 1000 boogey man (or woman).

Many of the crimes committed on college campuses are at the hands of students with no criminal background. Often times students who have made a mistake are seeking ways to redeem themselve through securing higer education as a mean to giving back to society that which has been taken. Where are the stats to prove that students with criminal backgrounds commit crimes on college campuses. I think the opposite is true that they are more likely to work harder at achieving their acedemic goals because of the strike they have on them. I should know, I'm in college now.

i just got notification that i can not enroll in a higher education in my area for criminal justice due to having a criminal record i feel its bullshit and its not right tostop someone from receiving a good education to better their selves despite the past...,,

I am graduating with honors, both national and collegiate, in a few weeks. Last night I received a letter of rejection from the state school where I applied for transfer. Under the state school's transfer agreement with the community college that I am graduating from, admittance in guaranteed for students with a minimum GPA that I far exceed. I want to fight them on this, but I am feeling very small in this. On a side note: their request for my CORI was illegal, according to my state laws. I tried to take a stand against submitting to the request, but they told me that if I did not comply, my application would be considered incomplete. It is so sad, because I am really dedicated to my education and my long-term recovery. None of my convictions were, drug, violence, theft, fraud, or sex offenses. I was an alcoholic who was caught drinking and driving and twice convicted for it. Anyone have any tips on what I should do next? I want to fight them, but I am scared of the personal cost.

forgive the length before hand....i have well unforunately till as of recent, due to stresses of deppresion, and private issues. (mind you not a reason to be so weak) but i went into jail oct 20, 2003 though released march 11, 2004 2 months prior to my daughters birth. and, discharged my probation march 11, 2007 completed my commitment to the courts. thinking that i had paid my debt to society, paid unconstitutionly high restitution, while working full time as a father and husband. like any upright workingclass family man would. i avoided trouble for 10 years. cut all ties with my past, in hopes that because i had fullfilled my end. my "Debt to society" i would allow me to start fresh, so that i could create a better future for my daughter now 10 and concieved shortly before being locked up. i promised that she would not have the life i grew up in, broken home with a dad in and out of prison, alcoholic woman raising me alone. yet now in the "A typical" divorce scenario, having to lose all i worked for. only to start out with no clue how to start over, couch surfing and days spent having to fig out where id have shelter food etc. me being the natural bookworm i am always seeking knowledge figured i should go back and re cert for my EMT-I and return to my volunteer fire station. and re start my old career goals.
only to find out i couldnt, because the very debt to society i paid under the laws and judgements apparently was not enough. i cant rent 90% of the appartments i had applied for, 80% of jobs wont hire me and the ability to gain a better education so that maybe then at least someone might hire me, McDonalds wont even hire the people that once were condemned to a dead end job "flipping burgers" because "Thats the only job aside from stamping license plates in folsom prison a convict is good for" where im going with all of this is yea, a repeat offender who racks multiple convictions a year showing no effort to change, fine. ill agree that does not warrant much respect. i get into a single stupid fight now 10 years ago and im demonized, forced to have to fight tooth and nail, and hit every brick wall as if i was Ted Bundy. sadly because of the computer generation, which i feel is a major cause of many of the issues. nothing is face to face, jobs, college apps, everything is seen in black and white font. pre screened and judged before the man or woman can make his impresion, or show who he is. before being allowed to show the true personality, drive, charachter and determination, that was once judged by a firm hand shake, a strong posture and how one spoke and looked you in the eyes. now
a mug shot of a single slip in life is our first, impresion. dont even get to make one on the phone anymore, what if that student isnt some tattooed beast hes percieved as, rather some 120lb kid who was bullied to the point of self defense, yet was wrongfully witnessed. yet he couldve been that next bio-chemist to make a cure all for cancer that may have just saved you childs life. That quantam physicist to create time travel or take us to the speed of light. Or, just what if that person is the bully? covered in tattoos and hes the one convicted but grows morally inside, realizes hes got an amazing mind that can actually save rather than harm, but i guess no one will ever know, because he or she retreats back into the night giving up hope, and only becoming the monster he never was, until society with its rules codes and sections, deprived him the chance and allowed him nothing more. the very society that preaches "do the crime do the time" yet upon release our time is still being served under judgement for years to come. if society wont give us homes, a minimum wage job or a chance. then remember the names of half the students enrolling that you deny, then turn on the news and ask yourself when you hear just one name,you colleges have denied, in a murder case, drug overdose, or robery. and tell yourself "i knew that man or woman was criminal, or a junky. i sure am glad i didnt let them into school" so you can feel good about yourself when you look in the mirror. rather than tell yourself "Had i not denied them could i have saved that life" when all the details come out that murder was an accident of cicumstance, or that woman you called a junky because of 1 petty drug charge felt that the child she is bearing, conceived out of rape, wanted to get clean, to show that child that even in the dark theres light, through knowlege. but guess she was wrong so instead her and an unborn die needle in arm to her falling into coma. repeating in latin "ipsa scientia potesta est" knowlege itself is power. so all of that said. no matter the class. all who wish toseek knowlege, deserve to seek knowledge. those who read all of this and agree thak you. please, if you work at a school, college, university, or better yet are a legislator hear this and change this problem. and see what can truly become of what was once the highest educated country on earth.
Pete Gallager 3/11/2014

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