I spent last week out of the office attending two admissions meetings, the Southern Consortium Deans Summit at Amelia Island, Florida and the McNab Alumni Legacy Program at Davidson College. Both were good professional experiences, helping me to recharge and reflect at the end of a long year, and I enjoyed seeing old friends and comparing notes with colleagues from both sides of the desk.
One of the curses of blogging is that I am always on the lookout for topics to explore, and I thought that one or both meetings might provide inspiration for a post. What I didn’t expect is that I would find material on the ride from the airport.
I arrived in Jacksonville early Monday afternoon just ahead of tropical storm Colin, which pounded the Atlantic Coast of Florida that evening, generating tornadoes in the Jacksonville area. I was picked up by a limo service, and because my wife has just started driving part-time for a service in Richmond, I asked the driver about the job. He is a former Navy helicopter mechanic who is now studying mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida and driving to supplement the income his wife earns as a real estate agent. He talked about the challenge of going to school with eighteen and nineteen-year old kids after having lived with the structure and discipline of being in the Navy.
He may also have been psychic or working for a government agency other than the Navy. He knew I was going to the Southern Consortium meeting, and so we started talking about college admission, and at some point I mentioned the blog. He asked what I thought about colleges considering criminal and disciplinary offenses as part of the admissions process.
I didn’t think anything about that conversation until I returned home on Friday and saw that the Obama Administration earlier that day had asked colleges and universities to rethink asking about criminal and disciplinary histories on applications for admission. The request is part of the White House’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, a program designed to reduce barriers for Americans who have criminal records and are trying to get their lives back on track. Twenty-five higher education institutions have already signed on to the pledge.
The Obama Administration request comes out of a Department of Education report, Beyond the Box. That report argues that it is in the national interest to integrate into society the 70 million Americans who have been involved with the criminal justice system, including a disproportionate number of citizens of color. Education can be an important pathway for those individuals to become productive members of society, but there are studies suggesting that individuals with criminal histories may be deterred from applying for postsecondary education by application questions asking about criminal and disciplinary histories.
We hope justice will be blind, and we hope college admission will be just. Does that mean that we hope college admission will be blind? Need-blind, yes, but discipline-blind?
I understand the argument and am sympathetic to those who made mistakes, paid their debt to society and now face discrimination because of their record, but I think it is entirely appropriate for colleges to ask about criminal and disciplinary offenses as part of the admission application.
I work at a school where we hold students accountable for both academic integrity and behavior. In any honor or discipline case there are two considerations. One is what’s best for the accused individual. The other is what’s best for the community. Similarly, college admission offices are charged with two ethical imperatives that may conflict, giving the student a fair decision based on his or her credentials and also protecting the welfare of the college community. That has to be a consideration in any college community, but especially in one that’s residential.
The Clery Act requiring colleges and universities to report crime data had its origins in the murder of a Lehigh University student in 1986 by another student. Since then we’ve had the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, raising awareness of the need for better information about and help for students with mental health issues. And recent cases at Stanford, Baylor, and other campuses highlight the epidemic of sexual assaults on campus. In this landscape, not asking applicants about criminal and disciplinary history is foolish and perhaps even negligent.
College admission requires inductive reasoning. Past experience may not accurately predict future performance, but it is the best evidence we have. We ask for a transcript of a student’s previous academic work because it may give us a glimpse of what we can expect in the future, recognizing that individuals grow and change. Similarly, asking about previous behavior may tell us something about what kind of roommate and classmate an individual will be.
What is open for discussion is what information we ask for and when we ask it. Beyond the Box suggests that colleges ask about convictions rather than arrests. That makes sense, since in our society being accused of a crime does not lead to a presumption of guilt, but asking the question that way may disadvantage those who don’t have the ability to hire lawyers to reduce charges and make deals. The report also suggests that colleges become discipline-blind in the application review process, looking at disciplinary history only after an admissions decision is made based on academic qualifications. New York University employs this procedure, with a special committee charged with evaluating the criminal and disciplinary records of those admitted.
I have previously argued that colleges should in the admissions process only ask for information relevant to admission. Criminal and disciplinary history is certainly relevant, depending on the student and depending on the institution, and colleges have a right and responsibility to ask for it. It shouldn’t, however, be used as a barrier to opportunity for those who have made a youthful mistake and paid their debt to society. They shouldn’t face double jeopardy from both the criminal justice and the educational systems.