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UM may 'ban the box,' stop asking applicants about criminal history

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

After Komal Prakash applied to the University of Michigan and learned that her admission was deferred, she reached out to university officials and asked if she could supplement her application with additional information or essays.

Prakash heard back from UM, but was stunned by what they told her: She had not followed up with details on her felony conviction.

Prakash didn't have a criminal past, but she discovered that she had accidentally checked the box on UM's application that asked if she had ever committed or served time for a crime. After she let officials know about the mistake, within two weeks she got an acceptance letter.

Komal Prakash applied to the University of Michigan and learned that her admission was deferred because she accidentally checked the box asking if she had ever committed a crime.  After she let officials know about the mistake, within two weeks she got an acceptance letter. The experience gave her a better understanding of the quandary for students who have a criminal history and want to go to college.

Prakash said the experience made her realize the quandary for students who have a criminal history and want to get a college education.

"It could put potential students (with a criminal record) off from applying to any institution that asks an applicant to check that box off because in their head they immediately feel that they might not have the same chances as anyone else because of their past," said Prakash, who decided to attend the University of California, Los Angeles.

UM officials are considering the possibility of dropping the box on the university's admission application that asks prospective students about felonies and misdemeanors in their background. Discussions began shortly after the May 25 death  of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, which sparked protests around the world for justice and an end to discrimination against African Americans.

 UM's possible move would not be a panacea, supporters say, but it is a small, immediate step to address racial bias in the university.

"There is an increased focus on racial justice and disparate impact that policing has on people of color,” said Jordan Acker, a UM regent who is behind the effort.

Banning the box wouldn't solve some of the issues UM has on campus, Acker said, such as low enrollment of people of color. In fall 2019, UM's 48,090 students included 6,155 underrepresented minorities, or 13% of students who are Black, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino or Native American. 

But dropping the box that asks applicants about criminal history may open UM's doors to more people, especially people of color, who are treated differently by the criminal justice system, Acker said.

"Research shows that people who see the box on the application and have to reveal felonies and misdemeanors ...  just don’t apply,” he said. "I wouldn’t want any qualified student to think that Michigan wasn’t a place for them because of a question like that on an application."

As the nation moves to address racism in many aspects of society — removing statues, debating new names for military bases, and calling for policing changes — the ban-the-box movement is gaining national attention as well.

The Mississippi state Senate has considered barring employers from including the box on job applications, and Waterloo, Iowa, banned city businesses from asking the question last year.

UM's look at the issue comes amid demands from Black students for higher African American enrollment, a student center and an improved campus climate.

UM President Mark Schlissel acknowledged those concerns last month: "We need to develop better ways to identify and mentor talented kids who want to go to college and can see themselves here."

Common question

It's hard to assess how many universities have dropped the box from their admissions applications because some institutions never asked the question, said Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C. But the latest research shows 70% of four-year institutions ask it, she said.

"We are having a reckoning with racial injustice in this country (with) how many systems have been built to specifically exclude people of color, specifically Black people who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system," Ajinkya said.

"Higher ed has the ability to try and disrupt that cycle of injustice by opening up opportunity to populations that been historically discriminated against ... and be a ladder to mobility, and let people end up in a different place in life than the one they were born into."

Colleges that ask the question say parents want to be sure their children are attending a school where their peers have undergone a background check.

But several colleges in Louisiana, Maryland and Washington have dropped it, according to Beth Avery, senior staff attorney of the National Employment Law Project in California. 

The Common Application, which prospective college students use to apply to several institutions, dropped the question in 2019-20. However, colleges that are part of the Common Application can still ask it in separate, supplemental documents.

Many colleges in Michigan ask students about their criminal history when they apply for admission.

Eastern Michigan University asks the question on its admissions application. If someone checks the box and discloses criminal history, the school begins a process to find out more information. 

"We have a committee that will ask for more details on the criminal conviction, including a request for a copy of the full police report," said EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom. "The committee will review the report and as a group, make an admission decision. Nonviolent crimes such as embezzlement would be treated differently than someone convicted of a violent crime such as assault."

Wayne State University doesn't ask the question on its admission application.

"The admission process is designed to assess if someone has the opportunity to be academically successful, so we focus on their potential," said WSU spokesman Matt Lockwood. "If someone has a criminal record but is working to improve the trajectory of their life and their family's, we do not want to create additional barriers. We want to remove barriers to access and support students in their educational pursuits."

The origin

The movement to ban the box dates to 2003, when All of Us or None, a national civil rights organization, started urging employers to drop the criminal history question from job applications.

   Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of the organization, said the work began with formerly incarcerated people who wanted to diminish practices that effectively screen out people of color from employment.

Since then, at least 35 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted the policy to drop the box on employment applications. The movement has since emerged in housing and  higher education, said Nunn, who's also executive director of a California public interest law firm, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

"When everybody was telling us we should have a fresh start, a new life if we were coming out of prison, some of us thought: How is it possible if we can’t get access to education?" Nunn said. "We want more than a job, we want a career."

In 2015, two nonprofit organizations, the Center for Community Services and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, released one of the first major reports on the impact of asking college applicants about their criminal history.

It found that two out of every three prospective college students who revealed a felony conviction were discouraged from completing the application process.

"Asking applicants about past felony convictions has a chilling effect, discouraging people from completing the application process, and often ending their hopes of a college degree," according to the report. "We see that many people abandon their plans for a college education when faced with the gauntlet of questions and investigation into their background."

"Black people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system," said Vivian Denise Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit that mentors women with criminal justice histories in higher education. "The deterring effect of asking about past convictions intensifies the unequal rate of Black people applying to college in the United States."

UM has asked applicants to disclose any criminal or conduct issues since 1999, said spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

The original question read: "Is any felony charge, or allegation of academic or disciplinary misconduct at any secondary school, college or university, currently pending against you?"

"Since that time, the university has regularly reviewed both the use and the wording of the question to ensure it doesn’t discourage potential applicants while also helping to support a safe, supportive campus community," Fitzgerald said.

UM used guidance from the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 and added language to the question about criminal history: "Please know that any prior or pending disciplinary and/or criminal history does not automatically disqualify you for admission.

"Note: You have an ongoing responsibility to inform the Office of Undergraduate Admissions immediately of any changes to your disciplinary and/or criminal history until you start classes. Failure to report prior or pending disciplinary and/or criminal history may result in the withdrawal of your application or revocation of your admission. "

UM updated the language in 2019, asking five questions that include one about adjudication of felonies or misdemeanors. It prefaces the questions, explaining why prospective applicants are required to answer them.

"These questions are designed to help the University maintain a safe and secure environment and to support the success of our students. Answers to the following questions do not automatically bar applicants from admission, and answers are reviewed only after an initial determination is made that the applicant meets the University’s standards for admission."

Saveri Nanbigama, UM student body vice president, thinks it would be good for the university to drop the box on applications.

“Even though you have a criminal conviction or something on your record," Nanbigama said, "it doesn’t mean it defines you as a person or your ability to succeed in a higher-ed institution."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com