Excerpted from The Atlantic story by Alia Wong
The nonprofit organization behind the Common Application, a single form that students can fill out to apply to any college that uses it, announced this week that, starting next year, it will no longer ask students about their criminal history. The shift could alter the life course for many students with higher-education aspirations who have a misdemeanor or felony attached to their name.
The move, which was announced to Common App member institutions on Tuesday, is significant because of the sheer number of students who use the application, and of the institutions that accept it. More than 1 million prospective undergraduates every year apply to college using the Common App, which is consulted for admissions decisions by more than 830 institutions worldwide—all but roughly 60 of them in the United States, home to the world’s highest prison-population rate.
It’s difficult to tell how many applicants’ prospects will change, in part because data that the Common Application keeps about criminal histories is not public, and in part because it’s impossible to count up all the students who would’ve applied in the past but didn’t for fear of being asked about their criminal records. But the applicants who will benefit most are probably going to be the very ones for whom higher education tends to be out of reach: low-income students of color, a demographic that is disproportionately represented in the criminal-justice system.
And that is linked to one of the strongest arguments for the change: Applicants’ criminal histories can reflect society-wide biases that are beyond their control. One in five black men who belong to the lowest-income families in the U.S. is sent into a correctional facility on any given day, according to a March 2018 paper co-authored by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. And as Tiffany Jones, who directs the higher-education-policy team at the advocacy organization Education Trust, pointed out to me in an interview, young people who are not white or who are poor are more likely to receive harsher sentences. They are also more likely to lack access to effective legal representation and are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in the first place.
The change goes against the results of a survey the organization (also called the Common Application) conducted among its members in March. That survey found most colleges and universities that use the Common App wanted to know applicants’ criminal histories. The move this week could be seen as a sign that the Common App might be taking on more of a role as a proactive agent of social mobility.
Daniel Obregon, the Common App’s spokesman, told me in an email that some relevant context for the decision was a change to the organization’s mission a few years ago, with the addition of a commitment to “access, equity, and integrity.” But he also focused on logistical considerations, explaining that there is “increasingly less ‘commonality’ in terms of how institutions use criminal history information in their admissions decisions.”
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