Data shows education to be one of the most effective ways to keep people out of prison or from returning to prison. Unfortunately, many college applicants with a criminal record face myriad barriers to accessing the education they need to begin building a new life. By eliminating criminal history disclosure requirements on college applications, colleges and universities can actually help end mass incarceration and reduce recidivism across the United States.
Nationally nearly 44 percent of people who have reentered society from prison are likely to return to prison within three years of release, but when they are enrolled and engaged in education, those numbers plummet. Only 13.7 percent of formerly incarcerated people enrolled in an associate degree program return to prison within three years, and the more they study, the lower those numbers get; 5.6 percent for baccalaureate students and 1 percent for master's candidates.
While in the past, advocacy efforts have focused primarily on reinstating eligibility for financial assistance such as federal Pell grants and New York's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, which were denied to incarcerated students starting in 1994 as part of misguided "tough on crime" policies; there are several other obstacles college and university administrations could alleviate through changes to the application and admissions process.
One such challenge is the check box on college applications that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history. A 2010 study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a lead organization of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, found that of 273 higher education institutions, 66% reported that they collect information about applicants' criminal justice history, while only 40% of those schools trained staff on how to interpret those results.
Further, a separate study looking into the box across the State University of New York (SUNY) system showed that 2 out of every 3 applicants who checked the box, never completed their application; likely due either to a fear of stigma or to complicated, and sometimes impossible sets of supplemental requirements ranging from rap sheets, letters from correctional officers, parole boards, etc. This means that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 do not complete their applications due to attrition.
Currently, criminal justice policy makers and thought leaders are examining the racial disparities in both our criminal justice system and the ways laws are enforced. Because of this, education policies that create additional barriers for those with criminal records disproportionately and unjustly impact people of color.
So what can college administrators do?
First and foremost: Ban the box. Removing from college applications the requirement to disclose one's criminal record gives these applicants a fairer shot at being considered for admission based on their academic merit and other skills. Secondly, requiring a letter from a corrections officer or requiring that an applicant participate in a community supervision program inserts college administrators into the criminal justice system where they don't belong.
Education is the surest way to keep someone out of prison; which is why the Education from the Inside Out Coalition urges state legislators to pass the Fair Access To Education Act (S969/A3363) in New York, which would ban the box in college admissions for private and public institutions throughout the state.
However this is not the job of legislators alone, it is critical in the meantime, that college administrators acknowledge the many ways we can work within our institutions to remove barriers to higher education for those who need it most. Let's make this dream of equal opportunity, safer streets and smarter citizens a reality and in doing so, strengthen the diverse experiences and backgrounds of our student bodies.