Abolish the Box on College Applications

Late last spring, Princeton University Students for Prison Education and Reform presented the school's president with a petition containing over 1000 signatures, calling for the school to cease using the Common Application's questions about prior criminal and disciplinary histories.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly reports, "Students have called on colleges to 'abolish the box,' saying that asking the question is 'discriminatory and oppressive' because the justice system does not treat all people equally."

They're right. Seeking criminal and disciplinary histories of college applicants is like a medical test that generates false positives and negatives willy-nilly. Discriminatory policing and prosecution, plus plea bargains forced by risks of unacceptable consequences of going to trial, give poor whites and people of color records they should not have. Meanwhile, miscreants who have escaped detection or received leniency are undetected by "the box." All that the questions reveal is who was ensnared, not who did wrong.

Princeton's Dean of Admission says a checked box does not automatically disqualify. She was quoted as saying, "We do a holistic review of each file, and there might be circumstances we take into consideration that would lead us to admit a student." University President Christopher Eisgruber floated the possibility of delaying asking the question until late in the admission process. However, admissions officers, like the rest of us, are years away from being free from society's white-supremacist biases, which means that staff cannot reliably evaluate the meaning of a "yes" at any point in the process. (Note the Dean's presumption that a "yes" answer means an applicant should be denied admission unless reasons to the contrary outweigh the presumption.)

It would be equally rational to omit the issue of apprehension and adjudication and ask, "In the last three years, have you intentionally caused another bodily injury, appropriated or damaged another's physical or intellectual property, practiced deception causing genuine harm to another or society, or incited others to do such acts? If so, explain and say how you feel about it now." Of the few who should answer "yes," some would not, but data obtained in this manner would be at least as reliable as that obtained now, and without the collateral damage. I doubt that the unreliability of all available systems for evaluating applicants' moral histories causes much harm to a school.

Unfair outcomes aside, I'd like to see our colleges and universities stop sending potential applicants with records the message that the institutions trust unfair judicial and school disciplinary systems, assume that those whose circumstances actually have led them to make mistakes are forever dangerous or untrustworthy, and will see the applicants as "less than." They get enough of that in the rest of their lives.