Why College Admissions Policies for Students with Felony Convictions Are Not Working at One Institution

By Custer, Bradley D. | College and University, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Why College Admissions Policies for Students with Felony Convictions Are Not Working at One Institution


Custer, Bradley D., College and University


The college admissions process is often thought of as the gatekeeper of higher education. At an increasing number of institutions, applicants with felony convictions face additional barriers. Special admissions policies were designed to prevent dangerous ex-offenders from entering a campus community, but there is very little published data about their effectiveness. This study is a review of these practices at one university. The researcher found that the special admissions process needs more scrutiny because its effectiveness remains largely unproven. It could not be clearly determined from study results if the process directly improved campus safety, but the process was shown to leave some ex-offender-applicants feeling marginalized and stigmatized. Implications for policy makers are presented in order to reduce harm to applicants and to provide support for admitted students with felony convictions.

In 2009, the U.S. Department ofjustice reported that 1,617,478 people were incarcerated in the United States (West 2010). This was equivalent to 504 incarcerated people per 100,000 u.s. residents-the highest incarceration rate in the world. On average, the rate increased 2 percent annually since 2000 and only began to taper off in 2009 (West 2010). With u.s. college enrollment at 21 million in 2010 and with the expectation that enrollment would increase 15 percent between fall 2010 and fall 2020, the number of people with criminal histories applying to college is likely to increase (U.S. Department of Education 2011). An emerging trend is for institutions of higher education (ihes) to screen applicants with felony convictions by requiring self-disclosure of criminal history (Weissman etal. 2010). This paper summarizes the literature on these policies and presents a study on the outcomes of admissions practices at one ihe. Implications for admissions and student affairs professionals are considered.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Administrators are increasingly concerned about the safety of staff and students. Infamous acts of violence on college campuses-as, for example, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007 and at Northern Illinois University in 2008-have resulted in the development of new policies and procedures designed to promote a safer campus environment (Hughes, White and Hertz 2008; Hughes and Wolf 2008). More recent events, such as the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, by a former Pima Community College student and the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, by a former University of Colorado at Denver graduate student, may continue to fuel the development of such policies (Patton 2012; Reiss 2011). While it is common knowledge that mental health and not previous criminal history was the common denominator in these notable events, one emerging trend is to use criminal histories as a selective measure in the admissions process. AACRAO reports that 66 percent of 273 1h es surveyed collect criminal history information, and 55 percent both collect and use criminal history information in the admissions process (Weissman et al. 2010).

ADMISSIONS POLICIES

Several authors have attempted to describe best practices for admissions policies that screen students based on criminal history (Dickerson 2010; Langhauser 2001; Weissman et al. 2010). Many elements are similar: First, applicants are required to indicate any past felony convictions on a general admissions form. Then, applicants are prompted to supply additional information [e.g., court records or an essay) about their convictions. A committee that typically includes representatives from student conduct, police, counseling, legal counsel, admissions, and the faculty reviews all applications and sometimes interviews applicants. Concerned primarily about the types and dates of convictions, court sanctions, evidence of rehabilitation, and evidence of acceptance of responsibility, the committee makes decisions or recommendations regarding admission; sometimes it imposes conditions of admission or refers applicants to student services. …

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