SUNY schools ‘ban the box’ asking about criminal history on applications

Lara Hirschberg | Contributing Photographer

SUNY schools, including SUNY-ESF, will no longer ask applicants about their criminal past.

For many, the question, “Have you ever committed a felony?” on applications is not a big deal. But, for those with a criminal record, the question can be a major roadblock when applying to college.

On Sept. 14, the State University of New York school system voted to eliminate the question as a requirement on their applications, making it the first higher education system to not require applicants to indicate criminal history on their college applications.

Students will have to report if they have been convicted of a felony for certain purposes, such as housing and study abroad, but only after they have been admitted. The change is set to start during the admissions cycle for 2018.

“The student representatives from across our campuses are incredibly encouraged to see this policy in place,” said SUNY Student Assembly President Marc Cohen to Student Assembly representatives. “We all recognize that SUNY is built on equality, openness, and accessibility, and this policy accomplishes that mission.”

Major arguments against asking applicants their criminal history include that it can deter many from applying and that many crimes committed by students on college campuses cannot be accurately predicted by criminal records.

The Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group that works to provide alternatives to incarceration for people in New York City, Rochester and Syracuse, released a report in March 2015 on SUNY schools.

The report, entitled “Boxed Out,” is based on a study conducted after “individuals with past criminal justice system involvement who found it difficult to navigate the SUNY application process,” according to the study.

The CCA estimates each year that 2,924 applicants check ‘yes’ for felony convictions, but 1,828 of those do not actually end up finishing the application — meaning two of three applicants who check ‘yes’ are never considered for admission, according to the report. The report also found the number of people who don’t finish the application is higher than the rejection rate for people with criminal records.

The change for SUNY schools came from the “Ban the Box” workgroup which formed last year and included representatives from both the SUNY system and individual campuses to look at the admissions process and reshape it. The workgroup will continue to meet and help SUNY schools as the new policy is put into place.

In June 2016, SUNY was one of the 25 original signees of President Obama’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, which called for colleges to reduce the barriers for people with criminal records who are trying to receive a college education. On Sept. 14, President Obama announced that 61 additional colleges have now taken the pledge.

“Being part of a system that changes lives, it’s important to remember that every student deserves a chance at a great life,” Cohen said. “The stigma behind criminal offenses might be part of a student’s past, but we, the SUNY Student Assembly, believe in a path forward. I am proud of the hard work and dedication my colleagues have put into eliminating convictions from the general admission process.”


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