Some colleges might make the argument that their concerns are not about safety, but about best serving students who need a particular kind of support; they want a holistic understanding of applicants, criminal histories and all. But the change in the Common App still leaves them room to collect this information through other means.
The movement to change the Common App, which has been taken up by several civil-rights activists and members of Congress, has its roots in the largely successful effort to enact laws prohibiting private employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. The Obama administration ended the practice for federal job applications during his second term, but the results have been mixed: Research after the change indicated that without specific information about, say, a black male applicant’s criminal history, hiring managers were more likely to assume that such an applicant had committed a crime than a white male applicant.
[Elite colleges have created a new application system focused on access]
Still, numerous aspects of the college-application process are explicitly tilted against people with criminal histories. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law a prohibition on Pell grants for incarcerated students—a ban that remains in effect today. (The Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, is considering reversing that policy.) In a similar vein, a law passed in 1998 barred applicants who’d been convicted of a drug-related crime from receiving any federal financial aid, including Pell grants, Stafford loans, and work-study arrangements. (The law was revised in 2007 to apply only to students who were convicted of such a crime at the time they were receiving such aid.)
“There’s growing … consensus that education is the key to successful reentry [into society for people with criminal records], and the policies we’ve had thus far that led to mass incarceration”—harsh punishment for nonviolent drug-related crimes, mandatory-minimum sentences, and the like—“just didn’t work,” said Jones, of the Education Trust. Jones is excited about the potential for the Common App’s latest move to significantly expand access to higher education, but she is also aware that students with criminal backgrounds will still face questions about their histories in other elements of the college-application process if they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and Pell grant application. And the Common App at least for now will still retain a question asking whether an applicant has ever been disciplined by his or her high school—a question whose answer is much more likely to be yes for poorer and/or nonwhite students than it is for their more affluent or white peers.
Then there’s the fact that even the Common App’s influence has limits. As a September 2017 Brookings Institution report details, various analyses have found that a solid majority of colleges and universities in the U.S., Common App member or not, inquire about applicants’ previous convictions. That’s the case at as many as 80 percent of private institutions and 55 percent of public ones; it’s even relatively common at community colleges, 40 percent of which report collecting such information. But this latest amendment to the Common App might alter perceptions of applicants with criminal histories, at least a little, at least at some schools.