UB op-ed: Don’t rule out hiring workers with criminal backgrounds

By: | May 24, 2019
Yusuf Dahl is director for innovation and entrepreneurship at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

When the Koch network recently announced a new coalition focused on providing work opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, one employment sector was conspicuously absent: higher education. It’s disheartening.

My first job out of prison was as a warehouse laborer earning minimum wage. The job was mind numbing and backbreaking, and did not offer benefits. While I was grateful to work, each shift left me enervated and discouraged. As the computer skills that I learned behind bars atrophied, my ambition to become an IT professional seemed more remote.

Then, I received a call from the local university for a clerical position; it was the opportunity I desperately needed, and it changed the trajectory of my life.

Climbing the ladder

The higher education industry represents approximately 2.62% of all jobs in the United States, and while many positions require advanced degrees and training, there are an abundance of entry-level opportunities on campuses that can provide a critical toehold on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

The consequences of unequal access to college employment opportunities are manifold and far reaching.

The fight to make higher education accessible to wider swaths of society—including those with criminal convictions—has led to sweeping changes, such as the removal of criminal history questions on the common admissions application.

The Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act (UBmag.me/btb) introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, would encourage more colleges and universities to remove criminal and juvenile justice questions from their admissions applications, paving the way for more students with criminal records to fulfill their higher education aspirations.

But what role should a criminal history play in working at a college or university?

These institutions have hundreds if not thousands of food service, facilities and maintenance, and basic clerical jobs that do not require a college degree. The biggest barrier to entry-level employment in higher education for the recently released is not a skills gap, but a lack of awareness of these opportunities and the requisite social networks and connections needed to get a foot in the door.

Insular culture

Many universities, however, continue to ask about an applicant’s criminal record before considering their qualifications for the job, discouraging some from ever applying. The result is referral hires and, ultimately, a workforce that reflects the often insular cultures of colleges and universities, which are frequently located outside of the nation’s urban corridors.

The consequences of unequal access to college employment opportunities are manifold and far reaching. Entry-level positions in higher education often pay above minimum wage and offer generous healthcare and retirement packages as well as tuition remission benefits that can extend to an employee’s spouse and offspring. For many Americans, a university has been the pathway to a middle-class lifestyle and an opportunity for social mobility that has escaped the formerly incarcerated for most of their lives.

My clerical position allowed me to transcend my former life of poverty and prison, forge a career as a programmer and public-housing developer, graduate from Princeton University, and later pursue my passion for helping to educate others on leveraging innovation and entrepreneurship to drive change.

By removing barriers to employment for the recently released, colleges can show leadership by not only providing scholarship on mass incarceration, but also by contributing to its elimination.

No more generalizations

Colleges work hard to build student cohorts that reflect the demographics of the world around them, yet this same intention is missing when it comes to their workforces. Now, as a senior administrator at a selective liberal arts college, I’ve had many encounters with colleagues who have made crude generalizations about the characters of convicted felons.

Sometimes, I remind them that talent is evenly distributed in our society, but not opportunity. Other times, I just shake my head and keep working, thanking the heavens that someone much more enlightened and compassionate took a chance on me 15 years ago.

Yusuf Dahl is director for innovation and entrepreneurship at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.