We Must Ban the Box in Higher Education

When you are released from prison, the last thing you want to do is spend the rest of your life reliving the mistakes that put you away in the first place. I should know: when I got out of prison in 2001, I wanted nothing more than to go back to school, earn my degree, and get a job that would turn my life around.

Like most of the 95% of currently incarcerated individuals in this country who will one day be released, I hoped to move forward with my life, and to keep the often demoralizing and dehumanizing experience of incarceration far behind me.

Yet I found myself forced to constantly explain these mistakes as I faced questions about my criminal history on job, housing, and even college admission applications. These checkboxes asking me to self-disclose prior convictions weren't just an annoyance - they threatened to derail my success and keep me from being the engaged citizen I longed to be.

The ability of these checkboxes to keep formerly incarcerated people from successfully reentering society is real - and that's why US Secretary of Education John King announced new measures last week to "ban the box" on college applications. His smart reforms are ones we should all get behind.

The problem with the box is simple. For the nearly one in three working age adults in this country who have a criminal record, it means that at precisely the moment they're trying to improve their lives through college education, they are reduced to nothing more than the sum of their past mistakes.

It's no wonder that just being faced with the box drastically increases the likelihood that a person with a criminal history will not even finish the process out of fear of stigma, rejection, or sometimes a complicated or impossible set of supplemental requirements that come after the box has been checked.

In fact, a study looking at the State University of New York's use of the box found that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 do not complete their applications due to the experience of facing the checkbox.

I, myself, was rejected after checking the box on a SUNY application, but thankfully was able to return to a school I had enrolled in prior to incarceration. In the end, I earned my degree - but imagine how many potential students are out there, and just aren't so lucky.

We know that education is an effective tool for changing the trajectory of one's life. I now run a non-profit that helps women with criminal justice histories go back to school and achieve a higher education; to date, the women of College & Community Fellowship have earned more than 300 degrees, and less than 2 percent have gone back to prison in our 16 years of operation.

It's understandable that those not well versed in the issue would assume checkboxes protect public safety, but they don't. Research shows that colleges that restrict access to students with criminal histories do not have demonstrably lower crime rates. In fact, colleges in the large California State University and City University of New York systems don't even ask the question at all.

While more than 100 cities and counties in the United States have taken steps to "ban the box" on job applications, the idea of such a ban in higher education is only now picking up the momentum it deserves. The US Department of Education is just the latest institution to question the box's relevance on college applications, joining the New York State Bar Association, New York University officials, and students at NYU and SUNY.

After all, if we want people coming home to stay out of prison and engage in society, shouldn't we be encouraging them to get an education, in order to better provide for themselves, their families, and their communities? Isn't blocking access to education only stifling their potential, possibly forcing them back into old habits and behaviors?

Education increases self-esteem. It strengthens the critical thinking skills that help determine the differences between right and wrong. It helps to ensure higher paying employment, and decreases a person's likelihood of returning to prison. In short, the transformative powers of education are real, well documented, and should not be withheld from anyone looking to better themselves or their position in life.

I applaud the US Department of Education supporting Americans looking for a second chance. Formerly incarcerated people in this country have served their time, and paid their debts; it's time we allow every American equal access to the vital tools necessary to succeed.