- The Delaware Senate pushed through a bill this month that would forbid the state’s public and private colleges from inquiring about applicants’ criminal histories.
- This is what’s known as “ban the box” legislation. Often, such measures limit employers from asking about a criminal record on job applications, but they have gained ground with colleges in the last several years.
- Delaware’s proposal would permit colleges to ask about students’ criminal backgrounds once they were admitted so they can offer counseling or restrict participation in campus life. It also makes an exception for such offenses as stalking and sexual assault.
Ban the box policies were bolstered under former President Barack Obama, who took executive action in 2015 to block federal agencies from inquiring about criminal history during the job application process. His administration later solidified this practice in a regulation.
Proponents of ban the box say it helps reduce recidivism and discrimination against former offenders. Skeptics in higher education say questions on criminal background are necessary to learn as much as possible about applicants and keep campuses safe.
However, ban the box advocates say there’s no correlation between campus safety and students’ past convictions.
A 2015 report by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reforms, examined the application policies of the State University of New York system, which at the time asked about criminal history.The report found that some of the most visible campus crimes were committed by those with no criminal history, including the 2009 murder of a Binghamton University professor by a graduate student.
At the same time, asking prospective students about felony convictions dissuaded them from applying to SUNY, the nonprofit found. It estimated nearly 2,930 students indicated they had a felony conviction, and almost 1,830 of them did not complete their applications.
SUNY in 2016 ended the practice of applicants needing to declare felony convictions. It replaced the policy with requirements that students declare prior felony convictions when they sought campus housing, clinical work, internships or study abroad.
Many colleges still pose application questions on criminal records.
A survey cited in a 2019 American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers report found 70% of four-year colleges include admissions questions on criminal history. Of those, more than 80% of private institutions and 55% of public institutions did.
However, this data was collected prior to the Common Application announcing in 2018 that it would do away with questions about criminal history. The Common App, the online portal for admissions, at the time had about 800 member institutions. It has since grown to roughly 900.
In Delaware, the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College do not ask applicants about their criminal records, according to news reports. Delaware State University, Wilmington University and Goldey Beacom College do.
A summary of the bill notes that banning questions about criminal histories is intended to promote diversity.
Under the bill, colleges that deny applicants because of a violent offense, such as sex crime, would need to disclose that fact to them.
The proposed legislation also requires the state’s education department to compile an annual report from each institution that includes the race and gender of applicants and accepted students.