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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.

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