More Colleges Doing Background Checks on Students

Jason Morris

Report: Colleges increase use of criminal records to screen applicants may keep ex-cons from getting an education

A growing number of American colleges use criminal records to screen applicants, according to a Syracuse agency’s national survey.

The practice could lead to a higher crime rate because ex-cons turned away from a college education are more likely to be unemployed and desperate, according to the study by Centers for Community Alternatives.

The organization’s findings have drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department and Education Department in their efforts to find ways to help rehabilitated criminals rejoin society. Two of the study’s authors, Marsha Weissman and Alan Rosenthal, went to Washington, D.C., last month to brief federal officials on their study, “Reconsidered: The Use of Criminal Records in College Admissions.”

The briefing in early April at the U.S. Department of Education was with 25 to 30 people who are part of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, said Rosenthal, co-director of CCA’s Justice Strategies.

Justice Department officials told Rosenthal they’re considering a national policy statement that would warn colleges of the dangers of screening applicants by criminal record.

“It’s new and it’s quickly growing,” Rosenthal said. “The policy statement would address the concerns about a further proliferation of this practice, in terms of creating an underclass of undereducated people.”

By denying access based on criminal records, colleges could be inadvertently increasing the crime rate, because people without hope and a job are more likely to become repeat offenders, he said.

Ex-cons who’ve gone so far as to apply to college and figure out a way to pay for it are less likely to return to a life of crime, he said. And because there’s a higher proportion of black males with criminal records, the screening also affects colleges’ diversity, Rosenthal said.

Security on Campus Inc., a national organization that for 20 years has pushed for tighter security on college campuses, disagrees with CCA’s recommendation that criminal records not be considered. But the group agrees with the study’s finding that too many colleges that screen by criminal record do so with staff who are untrained in understanding the impact in a given case, said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus.

“It’s helpful information to have in the admissions process, but the mere fact that someone has a criminal background should not automatically deny them,” Carter said. He cited the study’s finding that less than half the schools that collect and use criminal background information have policies in place on how to use it, and that only 40 percent train staff in how to interpret it.

But the idea that a college shouldn’t consider an applicant’s criminal record at all doesn’t hold water, he said.

“There’s a legitimate reason for it,” Carter said. “When you’re accepted into a college community, it’s more than just to sit in a classroom and study. You’re being accepted into a community of trust and established standards.”

CCA’s 59-question survey was sent in 2009 to 3,248 institutions across the country, through CCA’s collaboration with American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. About 9 percent, 273 institutions, responded. Their identities were anonymous to CCA officials. The results showed that 66 percent collect criminal background information from applicants.

The number was much lower until about five years ago, Rosenthal said. That’s when more colleges relied on a shared application that included the question, Have you ever been convicted of a crime? he said.

One applicant who ran into trouble because of that question is Letisha Boyd. She served 16 years in prison on a manslaughter conviction for fatally shooting a woman in a fight over a man, she said. She works for an agency in New York City that helps women coming out of jail or prison get enrolled in college.

When she applied to Empire State College last year, she disclosed her conviction, but the college wanted her to get her criminal record from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, she said. That agency releases records to the person convicted, and includes charged crimes that were later dismissed. Boyd doesn’t think she should have to release those records to the college.

Boyd wants to enroll as an online student, so her criminal background should matter even less than a student applying for on-campus study, she said.

“That crime doesn’t define who you are as a person and shouldn’t affect my academic process at all,” she said. “It shouldn’t even be considered, especially because I wouldn’t even be on campus.”

Contact John O’Brien at or 470-2187.

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Jason Morris

President & Chief Operating Officer at EmployeeScreenIQ
A veteran screening and risk management professional, Jason Morris founded EmployeeScreenIQ in 1999 and acts as the company’s chief operating officer and president. Morris is a frequent speaker delivering captivating, interactive discussions on background checks, global screening, recruitment and staffing. He educates audiences in best practice initiatives as they relate to organizational employment screening programs. Morris has been quoted in numerous business and industry publications including The Wall Street Journal,, USA Today, New York Times, among others. He is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
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