Criminal Background Checks Screen College Applicants

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Akira Lee, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., fills out a college enrollment application at her school in Washington, November 14, 2013. 

The usual college application includes SAT scores, high school transcripts, and essays, but many high school students may not realize that more than half of colleges also use another, more secretive form of screening: a criminal background check.

A full 66 percent of colleges and universities conduct background checks as part of the admissions process, according to a December report titled, “Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children,” released by the Center for American Progress.

In most cases, the university employees doing the checks have no training on how to use background checks, and no written policies to guide them. College officials say that the checks enhance public safety. When the University of Washington was considering adding criminal background questions to their undergraduate application in 2013, Vice Provost Eric Godfrey said that the college had “a high obligation to ensure that this campus is safe.” However, the university ultimately decided not to include the questions.

Such screenings can hinder students’ access to financial aid, disqualify them from using a federal tax credit, and bar students with low-level offenses from educational and ultimately employment opportunities.

“These policies are stuck in the ‘tough on crime’ era,” said Rebecca Vallas, policy director in CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program in an interview, “and it’s about punishing people who’ve already been punished.”

The use of untrained employees for background checks contrasts with how screenings are typically done in the law enforcement sector, where only trained individuals conduct them. A full 40 percent of the schools doing checks do not train their staffs on how to conduct the checks. Some information that turns up in criminal records has no relevance to public safety—such as arrests that didn’t lead to convictions, or low-level drug and alcohol offenses.

Also missing from the process are standard policies on how school officials should handle or respond to students’ criminal records. Fewer than half the schools that use criminal background checks in the admissions process have written policies on how to use the information that they turn up. Criminal records can be lengthy because of the level of detail that they contain. If employees aren’t properly trained, they might not even know what they’re looking at, according to Vallas.

“If you don’t know how to read the criminal record, you might think: ‘Wow, this is the longest rap sheet I’ve ever seen,’” Vallas explained.

Once accepted into a college or university, a student’s criminal record can still affect his or her access to financial aid and tax credits. An overwhelming majority of first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions receive Federal Student Aid.

Public officials have taken some steps to protect students from losing financial aid due to low-level offenses. In 2006, amendments to the Higher Education Act barred the government from denying aid to students with past drug offenses. But any drug offense that occurs while a student is receiving federal aid can affect his or her federal assistance.

“College is when people experiment,” notes Vallas. “You can end up with a minor use-based offense, like having a little bit of pot in your dorm room, and you could wind up losing your federal aid.”

Federal aid isn’t the only financial benefit that a college student may lose due to a drug conviction. A little-known but broadly used tax benefit called the American Opportunity Tax Credit remains out of reach for students with criminal drug records. Working as a complement to the Pell grant, the AOTC provides a partially refundable tax credit of up to $2,500 each academic year to help offset educational expenses. For non-traditional students and low-income families, this credit can go a long way toward offsetting college costs. But anyone with a felony drug conviction is banned from receiving the AOTC—for life.

These barriers to education have prompted civil rights advocates to push for further changes in the college admissions process. As with the ban-the-box movement, advocates have successfully lobbied for federal officials to remove questions from financial aid applications that ask students about their criminal histories.

Today, approximately 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, and an astonishing 70 to 100 million—or one in three—have some kind of a criminal record, according to the Center for American Progress report. For released prisoners, the first step toward full employment and economic stability is often education.

As criminal justice reform advocates seek to reduce the nation’s prison population, they will be looking for ways to ensure that those released from jail do not face barriers to a successful reentry. Given the rapidly rising cost of higher education and the disproportionate number of low-income and people of color who are convicted of drug offenses, civil rights advocates say that these barriers to education just exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration.

In some states, those barriers are beginning to come down. In 2014, several New York colleges agreed to remove any overly broad criminal record questions from their applications. At the time, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman heralded the change, stating publicly that such questions only discourage New Yorkers from seeking higher education. Under the agreement, criminal convictions are considered in an application only if the individual poses a threat to public safety or if the conviction is related to academics.

New York’s policy change could be a model for the rest of the country, says Vallas, who argues that “criminal backgrounds should be considered on individual basis.”

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