A New York Times editorial published last Sunday asserted that college applications that ask about an applicant’s criminal history are unfairly prejudicial in their deterrence of qualified individuals who pose no threat to campus safety. According to the editorial, questions like the Common Application’s question, “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime?” prevent individuals possessing criminal histories from accessing higher education and ultimately changing their lives. Such individuals are so afraid of the “Kafkaesque world where they are peppered with Inquisition-style questions and repeatedly asked to find documents that do not exist or are impossible to provide” that they do not bother to complete the application. While Swarthmore does not categorically deny any applicant with a criminal record, because the admissions office collects criminal history through the Common Application — provided an applicant reports it — and weighs this information in their admissions decision, some feel that the college could be doing more to prevent the inequities of the criminal justice system from being projected onto our admissions process.
“We take a holistic review when reviewing all applications for admission to Swarthmore,” said Jim Bock ’90, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at the college. “We are only able to make a decision based on the information that we receive, and we never automatically deny a student.”
According to a 2010 study conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives — a New York based advocacy group, which works to promote rehabilitative substitutes to incarceration — this policy puts the college amongst the 66 percent of American colleges and universities who collect criminal history and amongst the 55 percent of those who weigh criminal history, if provided, in their admissions decisions.
“The type of policy and practice described by the Swarthmore Dean of Admissions would place such policy on the more discriminatory end of the spectrum,” explained Alan Rosenthal, Consultant for Special Projects at the CCA. “On the other end of the spectrum are more than one third of all colleges that ask no criminal history questions whatsoever, in part recognizing that the question serves no legitimate purpose and undermines access to higher education for individuals who are qualified to benefit from such education.”
Among such institutions are all of the campuses of the University of California, the California State University, the City University of New York, and most notably as a point of comparison, Bard College.
Recently, students at Princeton, Columbia, and New York Universities have also been organizing around this issue with the aim to remove the question about criminal history from their school’s respective application. Last year, Students for Prison Education and Reform, a student-led group at Princeton, received more than 500 signatures from faculty, undergraduates, graduates, and alumni on their campaign to “Abolish the Box” on the Princeton application. Their campaign was not successful, however, due to significant resistance from administrators.
“Although there were some administrators who seemed potentially receptive to the idea (including Valerie Smith, the future president of Swarthmore), in general we received a good deal of push-back,” said Clarissa Kimmey, one of the current co-Presidents of SPEAR, in an email. Nevertheless, Kimmey explained that SPEAR plans to re-launch their campaign this Spring.
According to Rosenthal, institutions such as Swarthmore, which weigh criminal histories — if they are provided — in their admissions decision, are more preoccupied with the nature of the incident, the applicant’s efforts at rehabilitation, and the applicant’s subsequent good conduct instead of with purely the fact that the incident occurred.
Bock affirmed this presumption.
“We have admitted those who have been arrested or suspended for various reasons, such as civil disobedience or perhaps someone who made a non-violent mistake as a juvenile while in high school,” Bock explained. “Again, we try to understand the context surrounding the incident and what this individual and his or her experience might add to the educational experience of all students.”
Rosenthal, however, believes that such a policy is far too draconian.
“Regardless of the excuse any school gives to justify its criminal history screening policy and practices, the fact remains that no empirical evidence exists to show that that criminal history screenings in admissions is predictive of future behavior on college campuses or that it will make college campuses any safer,” he said. “For an issue like civil disobedience, how could you even dream of denying someone for that? Implicit in this statement is that we screen out everyone else in which case Swarthmore is on the bad side of the spectrum.”
Due to relative opacity of Swarthmore’s — and most school’s — admissions policies regarding the interpretation of criminal history, some at the college believe that it may be time for a review of our standards for admission.
“I would want us as a community to have an honest, candid conversation about what the criteria for admission are and be transparent and put the policies in place that align with our mission as an institution that is enormously a trendsetter in higher ed,” explained Keith Reeves, a professor of political science at the college.
Reeves has been involved in prison work for 12 years, and he is a certified instructor for Philadelphia’s Inside-Out Program, which brings together college students and inmates to learn alongside each other at a local correctional facility. His Politics of Punishment class is part of the Inside-Out Program and has given Reeves the experience of educating a swath of inmates at the Chester State Correctional Institution and at the Philadelphia Work-Release Site.
Through this experience, Reeves has met dozens of individuals who he believes are both capable and desiring of a college education, but have been deterred in the college admissions process by fears of the incredible stigma against individuals who possess criminal histories.
“Many of them have been told by teachers that they are not going to amount to anything and that they can’t do college work, and we have the wonderful opportunity to get them excited about higher ed,” Reeves explained. “Of the 43 students who have taken my course, almost all of them go back to school when they get out. They end up at four-year colleges. There have been a handful, probably three to five, who have explicitly expressed interest in Swarthmore, but they are very hesitant and shy. They know the academic rigor of the place, but also again, they are grappling with stigma.”
The harmful bias against individuals with a criminal history is one of the main concerns brought up by the CCA’s study.
“There is no doubt that individual discrimination occurs regularly, but stigma also affects the structure around individuals, leading people to be exposed to institutional discrimination,” the report’s authors explain. “This structural or institutional discrimination is often what results in disparities in life chances between various groups in society depending on their level of stigmatization and subsequent status loss.”
For this reason, Reeves believes that an individual’s criminal history should not be a determining factor in whether or not that person should be admitted to a college or university.
“I know from my own work, everything has to be put into context,” Reeves said. “There are individuals who make very bad decisions when they are young, but they put their lives together, and they make compelling evidence that they are productive citizens. In my own view, that individual, for the benefit of themselves, their families, and the community as a whole, should have access to higher education. This person could provide real value to a college or university community.”
Reeves’s sentiments echo the findings of a more recent study conducted by the CCA that was published earlier in March. The CCA studied the effects of the criminal history question on the applications for 60 of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York.
“Asking applicants about past felony convictions has a chilling effect, discouraging people from completing the application process,” the report’s authors found. “This means almost two out of every three applicants who check ‘yes’ to the felony conviction question do not complete the application process and are never considered for admission.”
One of the primary concerns raised by the study is that this “chilling” effect disproportionately affects young, black males who are far more likely to possess a criminal record than their white counterparts due to a number of factors including racial profiling, stop and frisk policies, “broken windows” policing in predominantly black neighborhoods, and racial prejudice within the courtroom. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites, and one in three African American men can expect to spend time in prison at least once during their lifetime.
“There is intentional and unintentional bias at every stage from arrest to sentencing,” Reeves explained. “It is a very complicated issue of race and class and neighborhood context and the extent to which a community is policed and what that does to arrest rates.”
Because of these inequities, young black men from lower income neighborhoods tend to be arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Thus, admissions policies that discourage individuals with criminal histories from applying, inadvertently prejudice against one segment of the population far more than any other. This prejudice is particularly profound in regards to drug and alcohol felonies and misdemeanors, where policing tends to rely heavily on racial profiling, class prejudice, and chance.
“When its drug and alcohol problems, to discriminate against people who got picked up and people who didn’t seems to be really about class bias,” said Ken Sharpe, a professor of political science at the college. “Middle class kids aren’t going to get picked up.”
According to Sharpe, the arbitrariness of the criminal justice system in this respect serves to undermine the argument that individuals with criminal records are any less deserving of a college education.
“It also ignores why people do bad actions,” Sharpe explained. “Impetuousness of youth, being on drugs, social circumstances. The deserving argument always means that the whole weight of the question is on individual responsibility. It’s never on the conditions, which lead them to that, which isn’t to say individual responsibility isn’t important, but it’s such a totally black and white ‘you are the master or your own fate’ kind of argument.”
Sharpe’s concerns address one of the most common justifications for the criminal history question on the Common Application.
“There is this prevailing argument that elite institutions like Swarthmore and UPenn and Bryn Mawr and Williams ought not to be available to this population of students and that they should be relegated to other, lower-tier institutions,” Reeves explained. “It’s a moral argument. They’ve violated the social contract, and so they ought not to be given the opportunity to get into the elite places if you will.”
“It’s important that all colleges and universities remain focused on keeping their doors open to any academically qualified individual who is seeking to attain a higher education, trying to improve his or her life,” he said. “So Swarthmore as an institution of higher learning, regardless of its size, has the obligation to defend the human right to attaining a higher education and eliminating any policy that creates an unnecessary barrier to that attainment.”
In addition to the moral argument of whether or not an applicant with a criminal history is deserving of a college education, the issue of campus safety is frequently a topic of concern.
The Common Application added the criminal history question in 2006 at the behest of various member institutions who worried that applicants with criminal histories were being admitted into various colleges and presenting a threat to campus safety.
“It was likely the result of a number of aberrant violent acts on campuses across the country leading up to the change in the Common Application in 2006,” Rosenthal explained. “In reality, very few of these incidents involved violent acts committed by individuals with criminal records…Basing policy on aberrant acts, rather than on proven outcomes leads to bad public policy…this is all about the facade of public safety.”
According to the New York Times Editorial, a large part of this impetus for this increased desire to monitor criminal records is due to the 1986 rape and murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University, which led to the establishment of the Clery Act, as well as the Clery Center for Security on Campus based in Wayne, Pa. The CCSA has been in the vanguard of organizations supporting the Common Application’s criminal history question. The group has also advocated for colleges to conduct background checks on matriculated students as well.
According to the results of the 2010 and 2014 studies conducted by the CCA, however, there is no correlation between an individual’s criminal record and their proclivity to commit a felony or misdemeanor on campus. Furthermore, the study found that rates of recidivism decline dramatically when an individual with a criminal record gains access to higher education.
“It’s helpful to remember that people leaving prison who decide they want to go on with their education have crossed a very important threshold,” said Rosenthal. “They are beginning to look at themselves differently and aspire to go to college. This is an indicator of major change. If you’re willing to invest in four years at Swarthmore, you are not saying ‘I’m going there to sell drugs and to get high.’ This is a huge social investment, which makes it very unlikely that this person is going to reoffend.”
“In our class, we had this one individual — Keith — who was incredibly, incredibly smart, but he said he didn’t recognize that he could do college-level work because he was never told that he was smart enough to do that,” he said. “He began to think of not only a brighter future for himself but also for his own son.”
Insofar as education is a path to the prevention of recidivism, Rosenthal believes that Reeves’s Politics of Punishment class as well as the Inside-Out Program are important remedies — but certainly not panaceas — for the injustices of the criminal justice system. Next year, the college’s involvement in the Inside-Out Program will expand further as Nina Johnson, visiting assistant professor of sociology at the college, who is also a certified Inside-Out instructor, will be teaching her own course based on the Inside-Out Program’s model.
“The problem is that the perspectives of these educators who are entering the prisons and are seeing the incredible abilities of some of the people they work with are not the perspectives of admissions officers and administrators,” Rosenthal said. “In order to turn around mass incarceration and mass criminalization and reverse the racial and economic divide in this country, schools have to become willing to step up and understand that if we are going to reverse this, we have to open some doors.”
“I think it could happen through these small incremental steps with the kind of work that Keith and Nina are doing with the prisoners,” said Sharpe. “I see this more as a Swarthmore path than as imitating the other schools … I like that it’s slow, it’s incremental, it’s learning.”