The Department of Education is urging colleges to remove one question from their applications — and it could affect 70 million prospective students

College freshman
The Department of Education urged college to drop questions about criminal history from applications. Flickr / COD Newsroom

The US Department of Education urged colleges and universities to remove questions about criminal history from applications during a press conference on Monday.

The recommendation, described in the new report Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, outlines that colleges should remove the barriers to higher education for the “estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records.”

“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said on Monday, according to a press release from The White House. “The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students.”

In unveiling the report, the Department of Education referenced a 2015 Center for Community Alternatives study that found 66% of college applicants with felony convictions begin applications but do not finish them. That figure starkly decreases for total applicants, where 21% of applications go unfinished.

While 35% of colleges admitted to denying applicants because of their criminal history, according to a recent survey highlighted by The Atlantic’s Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, experts argue the questions themselves could intimidate and deter applicants from even completing the process.

Vivian Nixon, executive director at College & Community Fellowship, spoke of the damaging impact questions asking about criminal history can have on applicants.

“There’s a chilling effect for many students,” Nixon told Lantigua-Williams. “They interpret the questions as, ‘I’m not going to get in because I have a felony.'”

Although the US contains just 5% of the world’s population, the country contributes to 20% of the global incarcerations — the highest in the world.

Prison incarceration also disproportionately affects men of colour; one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

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