Imagine the excitement and pride of opening a college acceptance letter from one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools in the United States.
Now imagine the defeat you’d feel when Harvard University rescinded that offer after finding out you had served time in jail.
Such is the journey Michelle Jones, who is both talented and a convicted murderer. Jones finished a 20-year sentence this summer for the murder of her four-year-old son, Brandon. Although given a life sentence, her time was reduced for showing intelligence and skill at research and scholarship.
“With no internet access and a meager prison library, she led a team of inmates that pored through reams of photocopied documents from the Indiana State Archives to produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year,” reported the New York Times.
Jones also wrote several dance compositions and authored historical plays, one of which is slated for production at an Indianapolis theater, while serving her sentence.
But when Harvard found out the details of Brandon’s death, Jones, admitted to beating him and burying his body in the woods, her offer was rescinded. Instead, she enrolled at New York University, where she is a Ph.D. student in American studies.
No data exists on exactly how many college students with criminal backgrounds are enrolled in college. But, a 2012 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics calculated that, by age 23, nearly one-in-three people will have been arrested.
A survey of post-secondary institutions found that 66 percent collect criminal justice background information from prospective students, and most consider that information during the initial admissions process.
On most applications, it starts with a simple "yes" or "no". Does the applicant have a criminal background? Check the “yes” box, and the application takes a detour.
Nearly two-thirds of individuals with a felony criminal-offense record did not proceed with their application after being asked, according to a study of those seeking higher education at the State University of New York.
When an applicant checks the box that they have a criminal background, they must answer subsequent questions detailing their arrest or conviction. The 2015 study from the SUNY system found 21 percent of applicants without a record didn’t finish the admissions process.
Checking the criminal background box, “yes” also affects a student’s eligibility to receive financial aid. A 2014 study in the Journal of Urban Economics concluded that “for this high-risk group of students, eligibility for federal financial aid strongly impacts college investment decisions” negatively.
Transition into society
For the people coming straight out of prison, completing an online college application can feel daunting and overwhelming.
“A lot of our guys who have done a lot of time maybe have never been online,” said Jed Tucker, the director of Reentry at Bard Prison Initiative, which operates out of select New York State prisons to offer inmates the opportunity to earn a degree from Bard College while serving their sentence.
“Our top student who’s one class away from getting a bachelor’s degree, who’s never been on the internet or dealt with the bureaucracy of a big public institution, absolutely is in need of people who have real experience navigating the bureaucracy of a public university,” he said.
Tucker said the admissions office should address the needs of these students like any other.
Colleges and universities often struggle with admitting previously incarcerated students due to concerns for campus safety.
But analyses have concluded these screening questions have low predictive value and the research does not suggest campuses that admit previously incarcerated applicants have higher crime or violence rates.
“Potentially, more than a moral issue, it’s a reputation and prestige issue,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University.
Schools don’t want to run the risk of bad press or the liability of being sued should a student with a criminal background get into trouble on campus.
“Several rigorous quasi-experimental studies indicate that increasing education reduces crime,” Scott-Clatyon wrote in an essay for the Brookings Institute. “Thus, excluding applicants with prior convictions likely makes society less safe as a whole, even if it shifts some risk off-campus.”
Education has long been proven to reduce recidivism, or repeated crime, rates. The country’s recidivism rate is approximately 60 percent, it falls to 22 percent when education is available to prison inmates.
Campaigns such as Ban the Box (BTB) aim at eliminating the criminal background questions from employment applications and housing paperwork. A parallel campaign called Beyond the Box wants to eliminate those questions from college applications. The goal is to make it easier for previously incarcerated people to get past the initial application process.
Some universities have begun to change the wording on their applications. The Common Application, used for admissions at 600 institutions, has narrowed that question, asking specifically about prior felony and misdemeanor convictions. Other schools, like New York University, look at a student’s criminal record only after initial admissions decisions have been made. The California University system doesn’t ask about students’ criminal backgrounds.
According to NYU’s website, they “believe these narrower questions better strike a balance between giving people a second chance through higher education and providing the University with information that may have a bearing on our campus’ safety.”
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