Why Obama administration wants colleges to admit more felons

The US Department of Education seeks to remove obstacles that can keep the 70 million Americans with criminal records from going to college.

(Victor Texcucano/The Daily Sentinel via AP)
Stephen F. Austin State University graduates file into their seats on the floor at William R. Johnson Coliseum in Nacogdoches, Texas, Aug. 15, 2015.

The U.S. Department of Education urged colleges and universities on Monday to remove obstacles that can keep the 70 million Americans with criminal records from seeking higher education.

The call coincided with the department's release of guidelines that encourage schools to look for alternatives to asking about criminal histories during admissions and to take a more overall view of applicants' applications.

The move is one way of giving people with criminal records a second chance at more productive lives, Education Secretary John King Jr said.

"The college admissions process shouldn't serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students," he said in a statement.

King made the announcement at the University of California, Los Angeles. The University of California system does not ask about criminal justice history in its admissions.

King's call comes as President Barack Obama is attempting to reform the criminal justice system before he leaves office in January. Despite falling crime rates, more than 2 million Americans are imprisoned, the statement said.

The Obama administration is also pushing to remove questions about criminal history from federal job applications, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Also known as "ban the box," the rule would prohibit federal government from asking question about criminal history until later in the employment process, when there has been “a conditional offer of employment.”

The “ban the box” idea has been gaining momentum in the recent months, fueled by the concerns of criminal justice reformers who have long held that “the box” systematically discriminates against felons, denying them opportunities that would help them integrate back into the society. A February 2015 poll by The New York Times/CBS/Kaiser Family Foundation found the men with criminal records make up 34 percent of unemployed men between 25 to 54. And the most affected are African American and Latino men, the poll found.

“There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path,” President Obama said last November, in announcing his executive action to ban the box. “And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote.”

The Department of Education resource guide calls for delaying the request for involvement in the criminal justice system until after an admission to the school is made.

It also urges informing potential students on how to respond to requests about a criminal history, and making questions about it more narrowly focused.

The Education Department report includes recommendations on how schools might consider campus safety and applicants' criminal histories without discouraging applications for admission.

King said that the schools should join the federal government, 23 states, more than 100 cities and counties and many businesses that have reconsidered how they use criminal justice records during hiring.

Some evidence indicates that inquiries about a criminal history may deter college applications, the statement said.

A 2015 study showed that two-thirds of people with felony convictions who started applications at the State University of New York system never finished the process, partly because of the requirements for detailing their convictions.

By contrast, the attrition rate for all applicants was 21 percent. (Editing by Alan Crosby)

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