In a recent off-Broadway production of West Side Story, directed by the provost of Nyack College, located north of New York City, the student who played Officer Krupke had once been arrested for impersonating a police officer.
Aside from the irony, Provost David Turk says it’s a great example of giving eager learners a second chance and of higher ed not putting up barriers—specifically, via criminal-record questions on admissions applications.
“We very consciously admit formerly incarcerated students into regular programs,” says Turk, whose institution’s application has long excluded questions about criminal history. “At some point we have to forgive some of these individuals.”
Nyack leads a growing number of institutions whose applications no longer ask about criminal backgrounds in an effort to ensure access to many of the 70 million Americans who have criminal records.
In June 2016, more than two dozen colleges and universities signed an Obama administration pledge to drop criminal background questions from their applications. The Fair Chance Higher Education pledge acknowledged the difficulty of finding gainful employment without a college education.
Among the signatories is the State University of New York. It dropped the question following a study of its applicants by advocacy group Center for Community Alternatives, which found the system was not rejecting a significant number of students with criminal backgrounds.
But two-thirds of people who checked a box on the SUNY application indicating a criminal history never actually applied, says Emily Napier, an author of the study and the Center’s director of justice strategies.
“It led us to ask, ‘If you’re not rejecting people because of criminal history, why ask the question in the first place?’” (SUNY declined a request to be interviewed.)
The criminal background question is moot for leaders of Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, another signatory of the pledge.
Designed specifically for people who have been incarcerated, the program has graduated 400 students since 2005, with a 3 percent recidivism rate, says Noriko Shinzato, associate director of government and community relations.
Many Project Rebound students have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in majors ranging from sociology to business. The program will now expand to seven other California State University campuses.
“We’ve seen a lot of data that folks who become incarcerated never had opportunities to pursue their educations,” Shinzato says. “The students who come in through Project Rebound are very focused and successful.”
For researchers like Napier and Wayne Taliaferro, a policy analyst at the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, criminal background questions present a social justice issue, considering the number of imprisoned minorities in the U.S.
“We’re talking about people not being able to fully participate in the economic mainstream,” Taliaferro says. “We can’t afford the costs of perpetually punishing people.”
Plus, research shows screening for criminal backgrounds does not make campuses any safer, Napier says.
Allowing former inmates to attain college degrees should make the nation safer. “Higher education reduces involvement in the criminal justice system,” Napier says. “Providing access is a sure-fire way to reduce recidivism and give people opportunities to contribute more meaningfully to their communities.”