This one application question could be making colleges less diverse

If you’re a teenager who’s ever had a run-in with a cop, your chances of getting into college might suffer.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights announced on Thursday an initiative to investigate colleges and universities that ask about criminal backgrounds on their applications.

The Lawyers’ Committee says these questions disproportionately affect black students, and that campus diversity suffers because of this.

Virginia Tech, one of the universities named by the Lawyers’ Committee, may illustrate this point. According to The New York Times, it asks on its application, “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a violation of any local, state or federal law, other than a minor traffic violation?”

Virginia Tech’s black population is only 4%, reports The New York Times, in a state where just under 20% of the total population is black, according to the US Census Bureau.

In addition to Virginia Tech, the Lawyers’ Committee names 16 other colleges and universities that ask applicants to disclose all encounters with law enforcement — even if the applicant was never convicted.

“All people deserve a fair chance to access the educational opportunities offered by our nation’s colleges and universities,” says Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, in a prepared statement. “Inquiries regarding stops, detentions and arrests pose unnecessary barriers for vast numbers of African-Americans given the racial disparities that we see across the criminal justice system.”

The connection between arrest numbers and race is well-known. Only 173 of the 3,538 police departments examined by the USA Today in a 2014 report arrested blacks at a rate equal or lower to other racial groups.

“In light of the documented racial disparities and implicit bias evidenced at every stage of the criminal justice system — from referrals to arrests to convictions — it is especially troubling that this might serve as a barrier to higher education,” says Brenda Shum, the director of the new initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee, in a prepared statement.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights says that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funding, including most colleges and universities, from racial discrimination.

For its part, Virginia Tech says it does not believe it violates the law to question applicants about their criminal history.

“These questions are part of a holistic approach in selecting qualified applicants for undergraduate admission,” a Virginia Tech spokeswoman told the New York Times. “We do not believe this is racially discriminatory.”

We also reached out to Virginia Tech and will update this post if we hear back.

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