Accelify Blog

Federal government urges colleges to limit inquiries about criminal records

May 9, 2016

By: Nick Anderson


Colleges should limit their use of questions about criminal records in the admissions process because the inquiries may unfairly deter many disadvantaged students from pursuing higher education, the federal government said in a new report.

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. plans to discuss the report Monday in Los Angeles.

“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” King said in a statement. “The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students.”

The University of California, which includes the prestigious and highly selective Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, does not ask about criminal backgrounds.

The Los Angeles Times and Inside Higher Ed reported on the initiative early Monday.

The federal government does not have the authority to dictate what questions colleges use to screen applicants. What’s more, the main federal application for financial aid includes a criminal-background question.

Question 23 of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, asks applicants: “Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans)?”

Removing that question from the FAFSA would require an act of Congress, officials say.

The federal report, “Beyond the Box,” recommends that colleges review whether requests for criminal-background information can be delayed until after an initial admissions decision has been made, “to avoid a chilling effect” on potential applicants.

It also recommends that any questions on the topic should be “narrowly focused” and give applicants an adequate chance to explain their records.

The Common Application, which is used by several hundred selective colleges and universities, asks applicants about disciplinary records at their high schools and whether they have been “adjudicated guilty or convicted” of a crime.

New York University this year urged the Common App to study whether these questions were needed.

“The time seems right — indeed, past — for thorough review,” MJ Knoll-Finn, NYU’s vice president for enrollment management, wrote in February. “There is a reason for urgency. Each year the matter remains unresolved could mean we are disadvantaging students who might otherwise go on to earn a degree — the acquisition of which is associated with low recidivism.”

Common App officials said that the online questions will remain in place for the coming admission cycle but that they plan to study whether any significant changes should be made in ensuing years.