Ronald Day, Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society

Access To Higher Ed: An Enigma For Students With Criminal Records

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

When we think of reforming our criminal-justice system, we often focus on helping people transition from prison to the community, on securing employment and housing, and on providing  greater access to substance abuse and mental health counseling services, as all of these — in some form or another — have been shown to reduce recidivism. But there is one area that has received less attention — and that is education, particularly post-secondary ed.

As some formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society, they want to earn a college education. If they had this desire while incarcerated, it almost certainly wasn’t fulfilled. With the signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, funding for college prison programs was cut. Prior to this legislation, there were 350 post-secondary correctional education programs in the United States. The eradication of this funding has resulted in a dearth of programs existing today, with those that have survived being supported almost entirely by private funding.

Unfortunately, the constraints of confinement don’t dissipate when the prison doors swing open and the scarlet letter of imprisonment can even impede the pathway to higher education. Indeed, some colleges have barriers in place that discriminate against people with criminal records. Although there are no data which demonstrate that these individuals are more likely to commit an offense on a college campus, a few colleges outright deny these applicants admission, while others require them to jump through multiple hoops, even compelling them to provide documentation of their criminal history that the college is not entitled to receive.

According to a report by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), a substantial number of people who applied to some State University of New York (SUNY) colleges simply dropped out of the process because it was so onerous. For instance, SUNY applications require people who “check the box” to provide a laundry list of documentation, including authorization for a consent form, parole or probation officer’s contact information, conditions of parole, and a letter of recommendation from parole, among other things. Depending on the SUNY campus, an applicant may even be required to provide a Division of Criminal Justice Services rap sheet. These rap sheets have entries regarding arrests that did not lead to convictions, and other information to which admissions committees should not be privy and may well influence a committee to deny admission to an otherwise strong candidate.

One of the biggest problems with colleges discriminating against students with criminal records is that these policies disproportionally affect the most disenfranchised group in our population — Black men. As it stands, Black youth have a disquieting high school graduation rate. For 2007/8, the national graduation rate for Black male students was 47% compared to 78% for White male students.

“Most alarmingly, New York City, lauded for its education reforms, is one of the least successful districts, and New York State has the lowest Black male graduation rate in the nation,” according to a report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The graduation rate for Black male students in New York City for 2007/8 was an abysmal 25% compared to 68% for White male students.

As these students check out of high school, they often find themselves unemployable. In New York City, for instance, one in four young Black men ages 16-24 is unemployed. Sadly, droves of these young men are checking into jails and prisons across the country. Indeed, harsh criminal-justice policies have resulted in extremely high incarceration rates for Black men with a distressing reality that one in three of them will end up incarcerated in their lifetime. Many of the convictions will be for non-violent, low-level drug offenses.

When someone elects to attend college, it can be a truly empowering experience. Moreover, there is a vested interest in people advancing their education as the benefits of a college degree are quite plentiful. According to the report Education Pays 2010, “The median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients working full-time year-round in 2008 were $55,700, $21,900 more than the median earnings of high school graduates.” Beyond increased earning potential, those with a college degree are less dependent on government assistance, more likely to vote, and pay more of their income in taxes to federal, state, and local governments than those without a degree.

No degree is entirely recession-proof, but it speaks to our priorities when we have more than 2 million people incarcerated, more than in any other country. If this news is not sobering enough, individuals who are incarcerated have been referred to as the “most educationally disadvantaged population in the United States.” Because the United States economy is inextricably linked to the global economy, we truly cannot compete if education is not a priority. As an Alliance for Excellent Education report indicates: “The era during which a high school dropout could earn a living wage has ended in the United States.” Accessing college is a stressful process by itself, without the added burden and perception that a potential student is not worthy of attending college and earning a college degree — reminiscent of the times when only the privileged earned a quality education.

As we think about the prudence of evaluating and amending our criminal-justice policies, it would behoove us to allow greater not less access to post-secondary education. This is especially true for people who, by virtue of their convictions, coupled with their race and socio-economic status, face daunting prospects in the reintegration process.

Colleges that have the conviction question should remove it from the initial phase of the application process, and require proof of one’s criminal history only after a conditional offer of acceptance. A college could then inquire about criminal convictions and take multiple factors into account, including the age of the person when the crime(s) was committed, the nature of the offense, proof of rehabilitation, and most importantly, the public interest in ameliorating the lives of people through education.

People who have prisons, jails, and bars as a part of their past can have college diplomas, professional careers, and self-determination as a part of their future. As former President James A. Garfield once said, “Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be maintained.”

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” — Victor Hugo


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