When a Classmate Is a Former Inmate

Students with criminal records are compelling colleges to rethink what it means to provide opportunity to qualified students.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

These days, American colleges are eager to boast about their number of women enrollees, their percentage of ethnic minorities, even their ratio of low-income students. They’re very proud of their inclusiveness and outreach. But many colleges are mum when it comes to the students on their campuses with criminal records.

To be fair, it’s a very delicate issue, one that requires reassuring students and parents that safety has not been compromised while also ensuring that some students with records are not singled out or treated differently. Finding that balance has proved elusive for some colleges, but others have successfully untangled the complexities created by this increasingly common phenomenon. At hundreds of colleges, students have to disclose any criminal history during the admissions process and may be prescreened by a special committee. A quick online search yields multiple websites—like the one at the University of Colorado, Boulder—with guidelines for admissions for students with criminal records. At some schools, a formerly incarcerated student’s movements on campus and his or her access to facilities may be restricted. At a number of colleges and universities, students who have committed certain crimes may be jointly monitored by campus authorities and state officials. The measures are set up based on state requirements, school policy, and the institution’s comfort level.

“It’s just incredibly stigmatizing,” said Emily NaPier, the director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, which conducts research in this area. She said that some students with records complain that some schools “don’t allow them to live on campus housing,” “some have a probation period,” and others “have some level of tracking and surveillance regarding their grades.” NaPier added that the center is also aware of schools that require students with criminal records “to sign a declaration that they will only come to campus for classes and will not participate in any extracurricular activity on campus, that they will not linger on campus, that they will not be on campus for any other reason other than classes.”

That used to be the case at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. For students who had answered “yes” to an application question asking if they had a criminal history, their admissions letter informed them that they could enroll in school, but they couldn’t live on campus. However, the school recently removed the measure after it expanded the use of the background question to applications that are given to high-schoolers, which could have meant that “freshmen would not be able to live on campus housing,” said Pamela Brown, IUPUI’s associate director of undergraduate admissions for operations. She said the school regularly modifies its policies as conflicts come up. “It just didn’t make sense to exclude them from campus housing,” she said. Now, the incoming fall 2016 class will be the first to be allowed to live on campus no matter their backgrounds.

But, in some instances, there are situations that are entirely out of a school’s control. Students with criminal records who want to apply for certain professional programs often hit dead-ends. “People are not rejected solely based on having a criminal record but can end up being excluded from certain academic programs that do not allow those with criminal histories to work in the field,” said Jason Ebbeling, executive director of the Student Success Center at Connecticut State Colleges & Universities. Due to licensure requirements or clinical-rotation guidelines, future teachers, nurses, and others who might work in sensitive areas are not allowed to have past criminal histories.

“Why is someone in a classroom with a record more dangerous than someone sitting next to me in a movie theater or a restaurant?” asked Barmak Nassirian during my conversation with him. Nassirian has worked in higher education for 25 years and is the director of policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “People do have a responsibility for maintaining safe campuses, I don’t dismiss that.” But he fervently opposes asking students to divulge the information, considering it as part of admissions, and subsequently monitoring students once on campus. “We essentially condemn people to a life of underemployment and poverty if we deny them the one medicine that actually cures criminal behavior: education.”

“We have a number of students that do have a criminal background,” Ebbeling said. “We work at the community-college level with people that have been sex offenders and people who have other convictions.” CSCU asks questions about criminal backgrounds and felony convictions at its universities but not at its community colleges. Some cases don’t necessarily even require a background question. “We have a very formalized process for sex offenders: The state has a registry for sex offenders; deans of students at the community-college level meet with students to discuss behavioral expectations; in fact, we place a hold on their account until the meeting happens,” Ebbeling said. “We start from a place where they are given the opportunities any other students are given until there are any behavioral disruptions,” he said. But he also explained that for the sexual-assault registry, there are state requirements that Connecticut schools must comply with and of course they must collaborate with state agencies on any pending investigations.

College administrators, according to several of the experts I spoke to, try to put in place as many mechanisms and safety precautions as possible to reinforce how safe their campuses are, especially for the peace of mind of prospective families. And yet, there are no statistically valid relationships between asking about criminal histories, the ratio of such students on campus, and the incidences of campus crime. One glaring example of this is sexual assault, one of the most common campus crimes.

Walter DeKeseredy, a professor of sociology and the director of the Research Center on Violence at West Virginia University, has spent over 30 years conducting research on violence against women, but he is best known for his work on sexual assault on college campuses. He sees no merit in efforts to identify and monitor students with prior criminal records on campus. “Two of the high-risk groups on campus are fraternity brothers and men who are in combative sports—football, hockey, and lacrosse,” DeKeseredy said. “We have the data. They are among the highest-risk men on campus for committing sexual assault. You have a subculture that promotes and rewards a hypermasculine masculinity.”

Another researcher believes there are other important factors at play. “The issue of race and class are primary, and they get focused on young black men, but it’s really young white men who created the problem,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. So even though in the United States black men are more likely to have a record and thus more likely to be under scrutiny by collegiate safety policies, it is actually white men who commit the majority of serious crimes, like sexual assault, on campus. “What we try to highlight is that these kinds of practices really are a de facto form of race-based discrimination … They undermine the goal of higher education, restrict access, and result in less diverse applicant pools. It’s so counterproductive.”

One measure that has emerged from the growing awareness of crimes on campus is the practice of signaling in students’ transcripts when disciplinary action has been taken against them. In most instances, schools do this of their own volition, but in several states, it is the law. One university has even started tracking states and colleges that annotate transcripts. “An issue that pops up is perpetrators of sexual violence who leave campus just ahead of the sheriff, who quietly transfer before any evidence is gathered against them,” Nassirian said, referring to troublemaking students who voluntarily leave school before any disciplinary or legal measures have been taken against them—only to later transfer into a new college with a fresh start. “There is a real risk, and real pressure, to annotate the transcript with any instances of disciplinary actions to warn the future institution about the student.”

A student could in theory simply not admit to a criminal background and circumvent all of the hassle and stigma—but hiding it can have severe consequences. In Connecticut’s state-university system, it “could be grounds for dismissal if the student does not self-identify in [the] admissions process, and there’s an issue later on,” according to Ebbeling. The same is true at the University of Washington. “It could be grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal if it were discovered later on,” said Paul Seegert, U.W.’s director of admissions. “But it’s the same for lying or withholding information on any part of the application.”

Educators want to welcome and serve qualified students. But they are also charged with maintaining safe and conducive atmospheres for learning. And so, for the student with a criminal background who wants an education, it can seem like there is no easy way around having a record—stigmatization now or dismissal later.