On college applications, the questions some say shouldn't be asked

Questions about discipline end up turning unfair judicial practices into roadblocks to college for far too many students of color, some say. Now, schools including New York University are retooling their approach.

Mary Altaffer/AP
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Thursday called for the removal of discipline questions from the Common Application used by more than 620 colleges and universities. Miaija Jawara’s approach when it came time to disclose on a college application a one-day suspension for a schoolyard fight that happened in 10th grade was to describe using the experience to work toward in-school restorative justice in her New York City school.

They seem simple enough requests amid the many details that college applicants divulge: Check here if you’ve ever faced disciplinary action at school. Check here if you’ve been convicted of a crime.

But there’s actually nothing simple about it, student activists and civil rights groups say. These boxes, they say, end up turning unfair disciplinary and judicial practices into roadblocks to college for far too many students of color.

The push to “drop the box” – including recent calls to remove these two check boxes from the Common Application used by about 600 colleges and universities – is causing a major rethink at institutions that tout a commitment to access and diversity.

Campuses have been under pressure in recent years to ensure student safety amid concerns about shootings and sexual violence. Now they face the challenge: how to do that without building bias and a message of “we don’t really want you” into the admission system.

“The chilling effect is undeniable,” says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington. “We need to figure out ways to ... make sure we’re not denying kids a fair chance to compete because of some incident they may have been disciplined for back in ninth grade.”

The Lawyers’ Committee issued a call Thursday for The Common Application Inc., a nonprofit that develops a shared portion of the college application for participating schools, to remove its questions about criminal and school-based punishments.

School discipline and the justice system are known to disproportionately affect students of color, particularly African-Americans. Black students are about three times as likely as white students to be suspended from school, and they make up 35 percent of juveniles arrested, though they are only 17 percent of their age group, the Lawyers’ Committee notes. Latinos and students with disabilities are also overrepresented.

The data can’t be chalked up to worse behavior, experts say. Researchers have documented that students of color are punished more often and more harshly than whites who exhibit the same behaviors. And work is under way in many districts – sometimes at the mandate of the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights – to remove unconscious bias and unnecessary punishments from school discipline practices.

The pushback against the check boxes is “part of the broader movement against the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Kaitlin Banner, staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization in Washington and Los Angeles. “Knowing the harsh and lasting consequences that suspension and expulsions can have, it’s important ... to stop this from affecting young people down the road.”

Student activists brought these issues to the attention of officials at New York University, prompting them to shift their policy last spring. In the current admission cycle, applications were initially considered in a manner that was blind to whether students had checked the boxes indicating disciplinary or criminal records. Then for applications that made it through, the issue was considered by a committee trained to avoid unconscious bias.

The activists want the university to drop the questions altogether, and they asked officials to tell the Common App that the school would stop using it if the check boxes weren’t removed.

“We disagreed with that approach,” says NYU spokesman John Beckman. “We don’t believe there is a sufficient body of objective evidence yet to determine ... whether [the check boxes are] having the harmful side effects they believe is the case.”

At NYU, a checked box has never automatically disqualified an applicant, Mr. Beckman says. The circumstances are carefully considered as part of a holistic process, and every year, out of 50 to 80 students who have checked one of the boxes, about 5 to 10 have been admitted.

There’s also not sufficient evidence that the questions further the goal of campus safety, Beckman says. So NYU sent a letter to the Common App on Jan. 27, requesting it to commission a study in time to inform the next admission cycle.

Common App spokeswoman Aba Blankson says both NYU and the Lawyers’ Committee are joining a dialogue that needs to continue among the broad, diverse membership of the colleges that use the application. “That conversation started months and months ago, and it is ongoing. I am confident that we are going to handle it in a manner that’s progressive and that allows our members to reflect what they want to on the application,” she says.

Currently, any participating institution can ask to be blind to whether students have checked off that portion of the Common App, she says.

There are several thousand colleges and universities that don’t share the Common App. About 3 out of 4 colleges in a major survey said they collected high school disciplinary data, and of those, 9 out of 10 used the information as part of their admission decision. Twenty-nine percent said there are some circumstances in which disciplinary information leads to automatic denial of an application, according to the survey by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in Syracuse, N.Y., and several partner groups.

Less than a third of the schools that use disciplinary information have formal written policies or training for how to interpret it.

Even if school officials say they consider the circumstances only out of a desire to keep students safe, there’s room for inconsistent interpretations, activists say. In one survey of school administrators, 6 percent classified weapons possession as “not at all violent,” and another 6 percent considered students pushing each other in a line to be “an extremely violent act,” CCA reports.

The center also found, in a study of State University of New York campuses, that many students dropped out of the application process at some point because they felt discouraged or stonewalled when having to supply documentation and explanations for criminal records. For every one applicant denied because of a felony conviction, for instance, 15 applicants with past felonies dropped out of the process of applying.

While not much research exists, one study in 2007 found no significant difference in campus crime when comparing schools that look at disciplinary and criminal backgrounds with others that do not, CCA reports.

“Schools do have a responsibility for ensuring public safety, but there are more narrowly tailored ways to achieve that goal,” says Ms. Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee.

College admissions counselor Sally Rubenstone of CollegeConfidential.com says students and families worry about the discipline question so much that she’d be happy to see it go. She suggests replacing it with a question for guidance counselors about whether anything in a student’s history should give the campus reason to be concerned about allowing the student to join its community.

However, she sees information about felonies differently. “I do think it’s reasonable to ask about felonies for safety and financial aid reasons,” since such convictions can affect aid eligibility, she says.

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says that because of the safety emphasis, “the practice of collecting the information and asking the question has escalated without having a really substantive discussion about why you are doing it and what your processes are for making it fair and equitable.” But that conversation is starting to happen, he says.

NYU is not the only school moving away from using the question in the first round of reviewing applications, Mr. Reilly says. Some schools hire outside firms to review criminal backgrounds of admitted applicants before they are allowed to enroll.

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