A growing number of Americans are required to physically check a box on all sorts of applications — including those for education, jobs and even housing — if they have a criminal history. Sadly, this means that even a single lapse in judgment can become a major obstacle for individuals, even after they have paid their debt to society.
Michigan recently took a step toward “banning the box” for career-related applications, meaning people seeking jobs and certain occupational licenses will no longer be required to check a box indicating that they have been convicted of a felony. The state also happens to be a leader in correctional education practices, partnering with Jackson College to provide college courses in prisons and working to support those incarcerated with Vocational Village programs. Given this positive momentum, it makes sense for the Wolverine State to move “beyond the box” in the educational context by removing the felony check-boxes on college applications.
Colleges and universities are in a unique position to help remove barriers that prevent the estimated 70 million American citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education — specifically early in the application process when prospective students are asked about an arrest record. At the federal level, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has introduced legislation to provide resources for colleges thinking of removing the criminal history reporting requirement. Senate Bill 3435, the “Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act of 2018,” would direct the secretary of education to issue guidance and recommendations for institutions of higher education on removing criminal and juvenile record questions from their admissions applications.
A recent survey of postsecondary institutions found that about two-thirds collect criminal history information from all applicants. Even more troubling, a Center for Community Alternatives study found that 25 percent of the schools that ask for criminal histories have some criminal history-related automatic bar to admission.
For individuals with felony records — and particularly for those who would be re-entering society after a prison sentence — education can be the key to finding successful employment. In fact, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that by 2020, “Employers will seek cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.” For those seeking employment, this means that the likelihood of attaining work will increase with greater access to higher education.
By removing criminal history questions from applications, colleges and universities can contribute to long-term, positive economic returns for these individuals — and help keep them from returning to prison. Studies have shown that “workers with postsecondary education earn 74 percent more than workers with a high school diploma or less.” Similarly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted research to determine the value of education and found that wages tripled for people who have earned doctoral and professional degree compared to those individuals with less than a high school diploma. Given that finding a job — especially one that pays well — is key to keeping those with a criminal history from being rearrested, removing criminal history questions on college applications will likely lead to better outcomes not only for people with records, but for society as a whole.
Furthermore, when a parent has a postsecondary education, his or her child is more likely to attend college as well, thereby passing additional, positive educational impacts on to the next generation. Theoretically, then, if we help ensure more parents have access to higher education, this can create a community with less unemployment and more stability for generations.
Opponents of eliminating criminal history-reporting on college applications point to the potential for increased crime on campus. Yet research has found no substantial evidence that screening applicants for prior convictions improves safety on campus. Furthermore, some of the most serious crimes committed on campus have been committed by people with no criminal record.
Education is key to ensuring lifelong success, and for those re-entering society, access to education can provide long-term, positive outcomes. States like Michigan, which have already taken steps to ban the box and implement correctional education programs, have a unique opportunity to be on the precipice of moving beyond the box to ensure that the lasting benefits higher education are accessible to all.
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