WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Education urged colleges and universities on Monday to remove obstacles that can keep the 70 million Americans with criminal records from seeking higher education.
The call coincided with the department's release of guidelines that encourage schools to look for alternatives to asking about criminal histories during admissions and to take a broader view of individuals' applications.
The move is one way of giving people with criminal records a second chance, Education Secretary John King Jr said.
"Those who paid their debt and served their sentences deserve a chance to learn and thrive, to make their lives better and get back to their communities," he said in a conference call.
King made the announcement at the University of California, Los Angeles. The University of California system does not ask about criminal justice history in its admissions.
King's move comes as President Barack Obama attempts to reform the criminal justice system before he leaves office in January. Despite falling crime rates, more than 2 million Americans are imprisoned, the statement said.
The resource guide calls for delaying any request for information about involvement in the criminal justice system until after an applicant is admitted to the school.
It also urges informing potential students on how to respond to requests about a criminal history and making questions about it more narrowly focused.
The Education Department report includes recommendations on how schools might consider applicants' criminal histories and campus safety without discouraging applications for admission.
King said that the schools should join the federal government, 23 states, more than 100 cities and counties and many businesses that have reconsidered how they use criminal justice records during hiring.
A 2015 study showed that two-thirds of people with felony convictions who started applications at the State University of New York system never finished the process, partly because of requirements for detailing their convictions.
By contrast, the attrition rate for all applicants was 21 percent.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, which groups about 2,000 two- and four-year colleges and universities, said schools should pay attention to linking social justice issues, like criminal justice reform, to their own standards, such as in the admissions process.
"The department has made a useful contribution to that discussion," Hartle said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Dan Grebler; Editing by Alan Crosby)