Although criminal-history inquiries and other disciplinary questions have been on the form for 10 years, since last summer Common App has been in conversation with its members about keeping or removing them. “We take a look at all questions annually,” said Blankson. “It’s not unusual to review questions on the app and make changes. I would say that we haven’t had a conversation like this before, and when you start a conversation, people’s opinions change.” One member who might have had a change of heart is New York University, which openly questioned the continued use of the box. Still, the questions were initially added, Blankson said, by request from member colleges themselves: “Members thought it was important to understand the background of students, their academic integrity. I think there’s a whole host of reasons colleges want to know as much as possible about their applicants.”
Kelly Walter, Boston University’s associate vice president and executive director of admissions, represents one of those member institutions. “At our last meeting, the membership did have a conversation about whether or not we should continue to ask these questions,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, the membership feels that there is value in asking this.” What’s more, Walter and Boston University don’t really have a choice. “In Massachusetts, if the Common App removed that question,” Walter said, “we would still be required by law, as an institution that is located in this state, to ask a question about students having been convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor that resulted in sentencing, or a misdemeanor in the last five years.”
“Students are allowed to explain the circumstances for their answer to that question,” Walter assured me. “In most cases, this becomes a nonissue. If a student is academically competitive, they will be reviewed based on that qualification.” Boston University has 10 undergraduate colleges and, in 2016, received 57,416 applications for just 3,500 slots in its next freshman class. Walter did not have a sense of what proportion of BU’s applicants might have checked the box.
Whether colleges see many applicants with criminal backgrounds or not, once they have that information in hand, a lot of schools don’t seem to know how to evaluate it. A Center for Community Alternatives study, Reconsidered, examined 273 institutions and found that 66 percent collect information about criminal history, but only 40 percent train staff to interpret the data, and over 50 percent have no written policy regarding the admission of applicants with a criminal history.
Gathering background information about future students is a core business of admissions departments, but some box opponents believe the criminal-history question has an unintended negative effect. “Students of color are the most likely to be harmed by putting these questions on the application,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She conducted a study that looked at the use of (or absence of) the question by two-year and four-year colleges in Maryland, a total of 50 schools. She analyzed all application forms used during one year and concluded that 40 percent included a question about criminal background. “Public four-year and two-year colleges are less likely to ask the question at the state and national level. Places that are more likely to give an opportunity to people with criminal records are two-year public colleges, and places that are least likely are private four-year colleges,” she said.