King anticipates that the pledge, if implemented with some dexterity, would especially impact people of color. “We know that African American and Latino young people and adults are overrepresented in our prison population and among folks who have criminal records. I think this will help those who have a criminal record have an opportunity to access higher education.”
But the pledge does not mention what some advocates identify as the primary deterrent to higher education: questions about a person’s criminal history during the application process. The Obama administration seems aware of this fact. “If that’s the first question, oftentimes, people shy away from going any further,” Jarrett said. The pledge asks schools to reiterate their general commitment to creating opportunity for all students while paying some attention to returning citizens.
We applaud the growing number of public and private colleges and universities nationwide who are taking action to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed, including individuals who have had contact with the criminal justice system. When an estimated 70 million or more Americans—nearly one in three adults—have a criminal record, it is important to remove unnecessary barriers that may prevent these individuals from gaining access to education and training that can be so critical to career success and lead to a fulfilled and productive life. We are committed to providing individuals with criminal records, including formerly incarcerated individuals, a fair chance to seek a higher education to obtain the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to our Nation’s growing economy.
Each pledging institution will craft an individualized plan that reflects their own approach to reaching the goal of expanding access. Some leading public and private universities have already signed on, including Auburn University, Boston University, the City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, Eastern University, Howard University, New York University, North Park University, Rutgers University, the State University of New York, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Washington.
Early adoption by SUNY will likely be seen as a symbolic victory by advocates who argue a person’s criminal history is not relevant in evaluating their academic potential. The state system is the subject of an authoritative study on the impact of such practices on potential applicants, and it also has a separate application process for people with felony convictions. The report concluded that over 62 percent of applicants with prior convictions who began the SUNY application process never completed it, compared to 21 percent of those with none.
“The pledge is part of a larger effort to engage higher education as a partner in undoing the negative effects of mass incarceration,” King said. He mentioned that earlier in the year, the Department of Education had engaged with an important player in college admissions. “We’ve had a series of conversations with the folks who are responsible for the Common App. They’ve narrowed the scope of the question around criminal records. They removed a portion of the question that asked about other convictions or other criminal conduct, or some other quite ambiguous phrase and they’ve committed to narrowing the question,” he said. This year, the question read:
Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime? Note that you are not required to answer “yes” to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be confidential.
A change to the wording that results in fewer students being discouraged from applying would be particularly significant given that 700 colleges and universities will use the universal application during the next admissions cycle. During the last cycle, over four million applications were filed using the online tool. King was not certain during which admissions cycle the changes would be included. “They’ve committed to review their policies and review potential further steps with their members,” he said.