Giving Students a Second Chance

A new White House initiative asks colleges to look past criminal records, removing an obstacle to higher education.

President Obama speaks at commencement at Rutgers University, one of the early adopters of the pledge. (Mike Theiler / Reuters)

The White House and Department of Education plan to ask American colleges and universities to reconsider using a person’s criminal history as part of the admissions process, opening access to higher education for millions. The announcement will be made on Friday, following a meeting with presidents, deans, provosts and other representatives from institutions who have already taken the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, as the initiative is called.

“This is about persuading institutions to do the right thing with respect to how they admit their students,” Secretary of Education John King said. “This effort is about removing arbitrary obstacles.” The initiative follows an Atlantic report in April on how admissions procedures targeting students with criminal histories can constrict educational opportunity.

“Our goal here is to ensure that when people are released they have an opportunity to live a law-abiding life, that they have all the tools they need in order to thrive once they are released,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president. In one survey, 35 percent of the institutions of higher-education that responded said they had denied applicants based on their criminal history.

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.

One of the challenges facing campuses that want to be more flexible in their admissions policies is pressure from parents who are not willing to compromise the security of the campuses their children attend. But there is no statistical correlation between violence, crime, or security on a college campus and the presence of students who have been justice-involved. Jarrett highlighted the case of the University of California, the largest education system in the country, and now run by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, which abolished the criminal-justice inquiry from its admissions process. “She was a great validator when she said that they have always had people who were previously incarcerated in the UC system and the safety and security of the campuses, which is her top priority, have not been detrimentally impacted by this practice.” Cognizant of the potential pushback, Jarrett underlined that the idea is “to give people a second chance where it’s warranted.”

As part of its “Beyond the Box” effort to raise awareness and inspire action on the issue, King’s team put together a list of “Ways to Take Action” for those interested in taking the pledge, including narrowing or eliminating questions about an applicant’s criminal background, training staff on how to understand and use the information when relevant, and providing multiple types of academic and social support once students enroll. “There’s not necessarily a single solution, we want universities to be thoughtful,” King said.

Some of the suggested actions are premised on students self-identifying as being justice-involved to other people on campus, which raises some privacy and security concerns, related to the stigma that may follow a student. Jarrett acknowledged the concern. “We have been exploring ways to put the spotlight on our criminal justice system’s need for reform in order to de-stigmatize incarceration in our culture, generally,” she said.

To fully grasp the potential impact of such changes, long-term studies will have to be undertaken, but the administration does not plan to include any such effort in their rollout or recommendations. Jarrett, however, did signal that efforts from other players would be welcome. “There’s a high level of interest in the philanthropic community to support these kinds of initiatives,” she said. “The administration would welcome the collaboration of the nonprofit sector in evaluating the effectiveness of this and related efforts.”

If King seems to have a soft spot for those who might be positively impacted by colleges changing their policies on criminal histories, it’s because he understands about rebounding from personal struggles. “Certainly, I have a very strong belief in second chances because of my own personal experience. After I got kicked out of high school, folks could have given up on me, could have looked at me as an African American and Latino student with a family in crisis who’s gotten kicked out of high school. What chance does he have? But they didn’t. They gave me a second chance to choose a different path in life.”

King’s mother passed away from a heart attack when he was eight and in the fourth grade. His father suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s until he passed away when King was 12. Through that very difficult period, he lived with family and later with a slightly older brother who was struggling with alcoholism. “As a teenager I was angry and hurt and didn’t necessarily have good ways to process those emotions, and got into a lot of trouble in high school.” He thought he’d escaped to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but instead was unable to adhere to the myriad rules imposed on students, leading to his eventual expulsion. He returned home and an uncle—who’d built a career in the Air Force, as a Tuskegee Airman—challenged him to take responsibility for his life.

“He told me not to let my future be defined by my past. That’s what this second-chance work is about,” King said. “To make sure we give folks access to education and job-training opportunities.” One of the complicating factors on the road to education, job training, and potential careers for those who have had lasting interactions with the criminal justice system is that thousands of regulations bar them from joining entire professions and specialized fields.

“We found that across America many states have general prohibitions against people, particularly those convicted of a felony, without any regard to whether that makes sense for that particular occupation. There’s a disconnect here,” Jarrett said. “There are some instances in which, due to the crime you have committed, it may be appropriate to restrict your licensing. But there are very many in which it doesn’t make sense at all. We want to make sure we’re being strategic about restrictions on licensing.”

“If we do criminal justice reform only by doing sentencing reform, we will not have done enough. We’ve got to couple that with investments in education and job training and clearing away barriers to meaningful second chances,” King said.

So Friday’s announcement is just a first step toward giving people with criminal records a chance to reintegrate into society. But for the millions who want to obtain the education they’ll need to succeed, and are presently discouraged from doing so, it’s a very important step forward.