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College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students: A Literature Review



As student affairs administrators are increasingly scrutinized for their role in ensuring the safety of college campuses, a resulting trend has emerged. Admission policies that screen applicants based on prior felony convictions are employed as a risk management strategy to create a safer campus. This article is a review of the available research and case law concerning the purpose and trends of these special admission policies, their effectiveness, and their legal foundations. Findings illustrate that despite an increase in policy implementation, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of these policies in improving campus safety; furthermore, their legal standing is uncertain. Correctional education professionals will benefit from an awareness and discussion of these trends in college admission practices in order to assist and advocate for transitioning ex-offenders.
The Journal of Correctional Education 67(2) • September 2016
College Admission Policies for
Ex-Offender Students: A Literature
Bradley D. Custer
As student affairs administrators are increasingly scrutinized for their role in ensuring
the safety of college campuses, a resulting trend has emerged. Admission policies
that screen applicants based on prior felony convictions are employed as a risk
management strategy to create a safer campus. This article is a review of the available
research and case law concerning the purpose and trends of these special admission
policies, their effectiveness, and their legal foundations. Findings illustrate that despite
an increase in policy implementation, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness
of these policies in improving campus safety; furthermore, their legal standing is
uncertain. Correctional education professionals will benefit from an awareness and
discussion of these trends in college admission practices in order to assist and advocate
for transitioning ex-offenders.
The Special Admission Process: Purpose and Trends
The purpose of the special admission process, often called the felony review
process, is to explore a prospective student’s criminal history to predict future
misconduct. The way the special admission process is administered is largely at
the discretion of administrators at each institution of higher education (IHE), but
both Dickerson (2008, 2010) and Langhauser (2001) have described models of
practice. Current trends call for a committee of administrators, including those
from student conduct, admissions, law enforcement, counseling, legal counsel,
and the faculty, to review application materials of those students who admit
past convictions on applications. The committee evaluates the information on
The Journal of Correctional Education 67(2) • September 2016
College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students Bradley D. Custer
the seriousness or severity of harm caused, the date and nature of the crime,
patterns of misconduct, punishment served, and evidence of rehabilitation and
responsibility acceptance. Applicants may be denied admission if their history
shows an ongoing propensity for violence or misconduct (Dickerson, 2008,
2010; Langhauser, 2001).
In perhaps the first study of felony review rejection rates, researchers at
the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) studied the felony review process
of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, of which all 64 institutions
require the disclosure of criminal history information. They estimated that every
year, nearly 3,000 applicants disclose felony convictions, but nearly two-thirds
drop out before completing the admission process. For the applicants who
persist, admission rejection rates based on criminal history, among the 20 SUNY
colleges in the study sample, ranged widely from 0% to 83.1%, with 13 having
rejection rates under 10%. In other words, most of these IHEs rejected less than
10% of the applicants with prior felony convictions (Rosenthal, NaPier, Warth &
Weissman, 2015).
In 2009, the CCA and the American Association of College Registrars and
Admissions Officers reported on the trends of 273 IHEs and found that 66%
collected criminal history information during the admission process by requiring
self-disclosure or by conducting background checks (Weissman, Rosenthal,
Warth, Wolf & Messina-Yauchzy, 2010). More recently, a new study reported
in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 70% of 1,400 undergraduate
institutions collected criminal history information during the admission process
(Mangan, 2015). With IHEs increasingly collecting criminal histories, “the final,
and ultimate, policy question is whether background checks actually will
enhance campus safety” (Dickerson, 2010, p. 28). Thus, the following sections
outline the available evidence documenting the effectiveness of special
admission policies.
Evidence of Effectiveness
The use of criminal history information “to screen prospective college applicants
grows out of legitimate concerns for public safety,” and some authors advocated
for at least some screening measures in the admission process (Weissman et al.,
2010, p. 3; see also Dickerson, 2010; Runyan, Pierce, Shankar & Bangdiwala,
2013). The following study’s findings supported the use of collecting criminal
history information.
Runyan et al. (2013) studied students at one university to determine if prior
crimes could predict future campus misconduct. The participating students
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Bradley D. Custer College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students
admitted their criminal convictions on admission applications, or when surveyed,
disclosed having university disciplinary records and/or having had committed
crimes or behaviors that would have constituted conviction or disciplinary
action. The authors discovered, “students who engage in criminal activity before
college, whether they admit it on their applications or not, are more likely than
other students to engage in college misconduct” (Runyan et al., 2013, p. 4).
This indicated that a prospective student’s criminal history could be useful to
student affairs administrators to gage future campus misconduct; however, a
preponderance of research shows the process is not as effective as intended.
Evidence of Ineffectiveness
Although Runyan et al. (2013) found that precollege misconduct predicts
campus misconduct, they also concluded that the screening questions on the
admission application were insufficient to predict which students will commit
acts of campus misconduct. An important finding was “few of the students with
disciplinary action during college reported criminal behaviors at the time of their
application” (Runyan et al., 2013, p. 4). The authors suggested amending the
screening questions to solicit more honest responses from applicants to predict
more accurately which students would engage in future misconduct, noting that
extra support should be offered to those at risk in lieu of being denied admission.
Olszewska (2007) studied the campus crime rates at 89 large, four-year
institutions, six of which conducted criminal background checks on student
applicants. The crime rates did not differ statistically between the universities
that did and did not conduct criminal background checks, indicating uncertainty
that such practices were effective campus safety strategies.
Another study demonstrated that the large majority of crimes on campus
are committed by students with no prior criminal history. In response to two
murders committed by students with prior felony convictions in 2004, the
University of North Carolina (UNC) conducted a self-study of campus crime
statistics. Between 2001 and 2004, 1,086 students participated in criminal
incidents and 147 students participated in aggravated assault or higher
crimes. Of those 147 students, 21 students were found to have had prior
criminal histories, meaning 14% of the aggravated assault or higher crimes
were committed by students with prior felony convictions (University of
North Carolina, 2004). Pierce and Runyan (2010), however, noted that this
study “did not report the overall percentage of students with prior criminal
convictions, making it impossible to assess whether students with or without
prior convictions were more likely to commit these higher-level offences” (p. 58).
The Journal of Correctional Education 67(2) • September 2016
College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students Bradley D. Custer
Regardless, the UNC study documented that less than 2% of the crimes on UNC
campuses were committed by students with prior felony convictions.
Custer (2013a, 2013b) examined the special admission practices at one
Midwestern university by reviewing the themes and attitudes presented in the
applicants’ admission essays. Results of the essay analysis showed that the
admission process distressed and deterred some applicants, causing some to
withdraw or not to complete their applications. Some applicants expressed
feelings of embarrassment, fear, anger, being discriminated against, and other
negative reactions. Out of 55 applicants with felony convictions who applied
between 2009 and 2011, 47 were admitted and 34 enrolled as students.
Additionally, none of the 34 admitted ex-offenders violated university policies
while enrolled (Custer, 2013a, 2013b).
While prominent episodes of campus crime are reminders that crime can
happen anywhere, it has yet to be shown that the special admission process is
effective in reducing campus violence or misconduct (Custer, 2013a; Olszewska,
2007; Runyan et al., 2013). Without sufficient evidence of effectiveness, the legal
foundations of these policies deserve examination.
Legal Foundations of Special Admission Policies
Historically, federal law and the courts have viewed educators as the experts
on the selection of college students; therefore, the law has provided minimal
regulations for admission policies (Kaplin & Lee, 2006). An IHE may not have
admission policies that “unjustifiably discriminate on the basis of characteristics
such as race, sex, disability, age, residence, or citizenship” (Kaplin & Lee, 2006,
p. 753). Admission criteria must also be clearly defined, and applicants must
provide accurate information (Bunting, 1990; Martin v. Helstad, 1983). Admission
may be revoked when a student falsifies application information, as in the case
of Martin v. Helstad (1983) when a law student’s admission at the University of
Wisconsin was revoked after he did not fully disclose his criminal history as
required on the application.
Liability and Negligence
When ex-offenders enroll at an IHE, the implications for liability are uncertain.
The theory of negligent admission refers to legal liability when admitting students
who can reasonably be foreseen to pose a risk to the campus community. It is
based on the principle of negligent hiring that employers are liable for harm
caused by employees whose “propensity for violence” was foreseeable (Stokes &
Groves, 1996, p. 863). “An individual injured by another student’s criminal act
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Bradley D. Custer College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students
might sue the university for negligent admission, arguing that she would not
have been injured had the school more thoroughly researched the perpetrator-
student’s background before offering admission” (Dickerson, 2010, p. 19).
Only one court case has addressed the liability of an institution for
admitting a student with known felony convictions. In 1972, Larry Campbell was
convicted of drug offenses and was sentenced to six years in prison. Released
early in 1975, Campbell enrolled in a special state-funded program for the
disadvantaged at State University College in Buffalo, New York. On June 9,
1976, Campbell raped and murdered a student, murdered a second student, and
severely injured a third (Eiseman v. New York, 1987).
The families of the deceased and the survivor sued the state of New York
on claims of negligence regarding Campbell’s admission and the college’s
failure to properly supervise him, among other claims. The trial and appellate
courts awarded damages to the families of the deceased, finding that the
college breached its duties to protect its students. The Court of Appeals of New
York reversed the decisions of the lower courts, finding that the institution was
not liable for Campbell’s actions based on his previous criminal history, thus
defeating the theory of negligent admission. The judge reiterated that Campbell,
as required by law, was released from prison, and the university did not assume
a heightened legal duty to restrict Campbell because of his alleged and assumed
foreseeable risk of harm (Eiseman v. New York, 1987). The court’s decision spoke
to the heart of the issue of students with criminal histories in higher education:
But even more fundamentally, the underlying premise that, once released,
Campbell by reason of his past presumptively posed a continuing,
foreseeable risk of harm to the community is at odds with the laws and
public policy regarding the release of prisoners. Consistent with conditions
of parole, an individual returned to freedom can frequent places of public
accommodation, secure employment, and if qualified become a student.
(Eiseman v. New York, 1987, p. 11)
The Eiseman case indicated that IHEs do not have an explicit duty to protect
the campus community from ex-offenders. Further, Smith (1996) warned that
assuming the duty to protect by screening applicants may warrant more legal
liability as it creates a contractual expectation for a safe campus. Langhauser
(2001) agreed, “Finally, and perhaps most important for college counsel, current
state law may not impose a legal duty on the college to inquire, and the college
should not assume a duty that it could be held to breach” (p. 6).
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College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students Bradley D. Custer
Blanket Admission Policies
One case helped to define the limits of special admission practices. In 2010,
the Board of Trustees of Lake Michigan College adopted a policy that denied
admission to and prompted the immediate expulsion without a hearing of
individuals with any felony conviction or sex offense. A student who was listed
on the Michigan sex offender registry was subsequently expelled from the
college. The student, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, sued
the college on the basis that he was denied his due process rights. In 2011, the
suit was settled so that the student was permitted to register at the college after
a proper hearing by college officials revealed that he posed no risk of harm to
the campus. Lake Michigan College was also required to change its policies to
ensure the individual review of each student’s application or case before making
any judicial or admission decisions (Lake Michigan College, 2011). ACLU attorney
Miriam Aukerman reiterated:
We support our colleges and universities in their efforts to screen out
students who may pose a threat. However, a blanket ban that doesn’t take
into account a student’s risk level, age of the offense and rehabilitation
efforts is unfair and illegal. (Lake Michigan College, 2011, para. 3)
A process to prevent potentially dangerous ex-offenders from enrolling at
IHEs comes out of necessity for improved campus safety. Many IHEs have
implemented such policies, but there is no evidence of their effectiveness.
A review of case law demonstrates limited and conflicting legal foundations.
Campus administrators should consider these findings in the review of their own
admission practices to avoid unfairly denying admission to qualified applicants.
Similarly, administrators must assess their admission process to ensure it is
yielding actual campus safety outcomes. Additional research is needed to
evaluate the effects of special admission practices on campus crime and
misconduct on a national scale and to examine the effects of these policies on
the reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-offenders.
Along with the review of policies, trends, and legal frameworks, one additional
finding yields practical implications for the corrections community. Rosenthal,
NaPier, Warth, and Weissman (2015) discovered that most applicants with prior
The Journal of Correctional Education 67(2) • September 2016
Bradley D. Custer College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students
felony convictions did not complete the admission process, which they termed
“felony application attrition” and “found that this phenomenon, more than
explicit rejection on the basis of a felony conviction, closes doors to higher
education for people with criminal history records” (p. iv). Further, they estimated
that “for every one applicant denied admission because of a felony conviction,
15 such applicants are denied admission because of application attrition” (p. vi).
Therefore, the most harmful part of the felony review process for applicants is
the process of applying itself.
Corrections staff and educators can assist applicants through the college
admission process by being knowledgeable about the admissions policies of
colleges and universities. Often, the felony review process policy is buried on
the institutional website, and in some cases, the policy is not published at all.
Contacting the institution’s admissions office is the best way to learn what
questions about past criminal behaviors are asked on the application and
about the subsequent review process. Notifying clients that this process exists
before they apply is helpful; prospective students often report being shocked
that they must disclose their criminal history in detail to get into college (Custer,
2013b; Rosenthal et al., 2015). Advising applicants to complete the application
truthfully is critical, as lying will likely result in rejected or revoked admission or
expulsion. Perhaps most importantly, corrections personnel can provide letters
of recommendation documenting the applicant’s character, current support
systems, compliance with parole conditions, and compliance with mental health
or substance abuse treatment. This is what campus administrators will need
to weigh against the applicant’s criminal history before offering admission.
Applicants may need to be referred to legal aid agencies for assistance with
obtaining required criminal history documentation and for guidance on
disclosing criminal records, especially juvenile or other sealed records. Finally,
applicants need encouragement and support throughout this process, which
could take months to complete.
Many IHEs have exemplary programs to support ex-offenders, notably
community colleges (Spycher, Shkodriani & Lee, 2012). Although a few studies
exist, we need to know more about the successes and challenges of ex-
offenders in higher education so that we can build special programs and
services to meet their needs (Copenhaver, Edwards-Willey & Byers, 2007; Potts &
Palmer, 2014; Strayhorn, Johnson & Barrett, 2013). A collaboration of the
correctional education and higher education professionals is part of the solution
to supporting ex-offenders in college, beginning with the admission process.
The Journal of Correctional Education 67(2) • September 2016
College Admission Policies for Ex-Offender Students Bradley D. Custer
Bunting, E. (1990). The admissions process: New legal questions creep up the ivory tower.
West’s Education Law Reporter, 60(1–4), 691–697.
Copenhaver, A., Edwards-Willey, T. L., & Byers, B. D. (2007). Journeys in social stigma:
The lives of formerly incarcerated felons in higher education. Journal of Correctional
Education, 58(3), 268–283.
Custer, B. (2013a). College admissions policies for students with felony conviction: Why they
are not working at one institution. College & University, 88(4), 28–36.
Custer, B. (2013b). Admission denied: A case study of an ex-offender. The Journal of College
Admission, 219, 16–19.
Dickerson, D. (2008). Background checks in the university admissions process: An overview
of legal and policy considerations. Journal of College and University Law. 24(2), 419–506.
Dickerson, D. (2010, June). Background checks and the university admissions process. Paper
presented at the meeting of the National Association of College and University
Attorneys, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from
Eiseman v. State of New York, 70 N.Y.S. 175, 518 N.Y.S.2d 608, 511 N.E. 1128 (1987).
Kaplin, W. A., & Lee, B. A. (2006). The law of higher education (4th ed., Vol. 1). San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lake Michigan College agrees to individualized review of students with criminal record,
ACLU announces. (2011, June 21). Retrieved from
Langhauser, D. (2001). Use of criminal convictions in college admissions. West’s Education
Law Reporter, 154, 733–744.
Mangan, K. (2015, March 2). Do your students have criminal records? Is it even fair to ask?
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Martin v. Helstad, 699 F.2d 387 (7th Cir. 1983).
Olszewska, M. J. V. (2007). Undergraduate admission application as a campus crime mitigation
measure: Disclosure of applicants’ disciplinary background information and its relation to
campus crime (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ILLiad.
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Potts, K. S., & Palmer, L. B. (2014). Voices of parolees attending community college:
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screening and college application attrition. Retrieved from Center for Community
Alternatives, Inc., website:
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diploma: Community colleges and correctional education programs. Report of the
College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.
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revealed. West’s Education Law Reporter, 105(1–3).
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and transition experiences of formerly incarcerated black male collegians at
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Biographical Sketch
BRADLEY D. CUSTER is a student conduct administrator and a doctoral student in the
Higher Adult and Lifelong Education program at Michigan State University. He holds a
master’s degree in student affairs in higher education administration from Wright State
... The structural nature of stigma can be further described as structural barriers that lead to macro-level discrimination manifested in legislation, policy, and procedure (Chiricos, Barrick, Bales, & Bontrager, 2007). JIIs often encounter structural barriers when seeking employment, housing, and education (Custer, 2016;Radice, 2017). These barriers are indicative of a societal stigma systematically codified in a manner that significantly impacts individuals of color. ...
... Custer (2018) organized higher education structural barriers for students with criminal backgrounds into policy categories such as admissions, financial aid, housing, student employment, and athletics as well as barriers from outside of the college, such as state-mandated sex offender registries. Extensive research specifically exploring structural barriers associated with admissions processes and criminal background disclosure requirements has been published (Bressler & Von Bergen, 2018;Brodersen, Swick, & Richman, 2009;Callahan et al., 2018;Custer, 2013aCuster, , 2016U.S. Department of Education, 2016). ...
... There is overwhelming evidence that college policies and procedures create structural barriers that discourage JIIs from accessing higher education (Bressler & Von Bergen, 2018;Brodersen, Swick, & Richman, 2009;Callahan et al., 2018;Custer, 2013aCuster, , 2016U.S. Department of Education, 2016;Rosenthal, NaPier, Warth, & Weissman, 2015). ...
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This dissertation examines the cultural and structural barriers justice-involved individuals of color encountered at an urban community college and the construct of stigma as a mechanism for creating cultural and structural barriers. Additionally, this study explores justice-involved individuals' sense of belonging and self-efficacy as community college students. Findings revealed that all justice-involved individuals participating in the study encountered barriers. Despite the cultural and structural barriers participants encountered, many expressed a positive sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and "gifts" based on their newly discovered purpose as college students. Cultural and structural barriers, as well as a new sense of pride and purpose, present several implications for higher education professionals, policymakers, and researchers to consider. This dissertation contains four chapters, beginning with an introduction to the problem, a review of literature, and a detailed explanation of the research methods used to conduct the study. Second, a full discussion of the findings using participant accounts is provided. Third, implications and recommendations are presented based on the findings and review of existing research discussed in the literature review. Finally, the dissertation includes a synthesized version of the study for academic journal submission and publication.
... Applicants who disclose a criminal record may have to undergo a special admissions process in which a committee that could include admissions counselors, administrators, campus law enforcement, legal counsel, and faculty attempt to predict an applicant's future misbehavior (Dickerson 2007). The committee can request disclosure of certain details, such as the date, nature, and severity of the most recent offense, the sentence received, acceptance of responsibility for the offense, and pattern of offending behavior (Custer 2016;Dickerson 2007). A study reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education showed that out of 1400 undergraduate IHEs, 70% requested criminal history information prior to admission (Mangan 2015). ...
... The court case Eisman v. New York, 70 N.Y.2d 175, 511 N.E.2d 1128, 518 N.Y.S.2d 608 (1987, addressed the issue of school liability when a formerly convicted student raped and murdered another student while enrolled at the institution. The victim's family was awarded punitive damages from the institution, but an appeals court reversed the decision and held that the school was not liable for the student's criminal acts (Custer 2016). Data indicate that such policies may not enhance campus safety. ...
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Access to education is a constant theme in discussions germane to correctional reform, particularly to reduce rule breaking while incarcerated and re-offending after release from prison. Focusing on the latter, we examine the extent to which education is accessible for individuals who have felonious non-violent records in the United States (US). We generated a stratified random sample of 85 institutions of higher education (IHE) in the northeastern US and analyzed emails from admission departments in response to inquiries about how a felony record would affect admissions decisions. Results from multivariate models indicate that the institution type (public vs. private) significantly predicts how an IHE would use an individual’s criminal history in admissions decisions. Public IHEs are less likely to consider criminal history when reviewing an individual’s application and IHEs with higher proportions of minority students are associated with reduced consideration of an applicant’s criminal history in admissions decisions.
... Measuring criminal stigma has presented challenges, but criminal justice scholars have more recently grown the literature on the effects of criminal record stigma during the reentry process. Research has considered the effects of criminal stigma on employment prospects (Pager, 2003), housing outcomes (Furst & Evans, 2017;Evans, 2016;Evans, Blount-Hill et al., 2019), college admission (Custer, 2016), and the ability to vote (Uggen et al., 2006), but limited research has addressed how a criminal conviction or incarceration affects the ability to initiate dating relationships. Experiencing incarceration enhances the difficulty of developing new social relationships, but also damages existing relationships (Huebner, 2007). ...
Stigma associated with prior incarceration could make dating difficult. To test this in online dating, an experimental audit used constructed dating app profiles of Black, Latinx, and White males and females. Experimental and control profiles were identical with the exception of a parole disclosure statement in bios of experimental profiles. Surprisingly, the White female profile disclosing parole was the only one to match with significantly fewer users. We analyzed the racial congruence of matches and found that White parole disclosing profiles were more likely to attract White users and Black and Latinx profiles attracted more heterogeneous users regardless of parole disclosure. The interaction between racial and criminal stigma and implications for relationship prospects among the formerly incarcerated are considered. Although the timing of criminal history disclosure matters, criminal stigma is unique in app-based dating, having more negative effects for Whites, which differs from other social domains.
... The ability of system-impacted people to access college and graduate school is a vital precursor to having these transformational educational experiences and to creating pathways to meaningful employment, including faculty careers. But higher education institutions continue to deny admission to undergraduate and graduate students solely because of their criminal records (Brower, 2015;Custer, 2016;Evans et al., 2019;Stewart & Uggen, 2020). Fortunately, some institutions and the Common Application have stopped asking college applicants about criminal history (Wong, 2018). ...
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US higher education institutions strive to build diverse faculties, yet institutions put up significant barriers to hiring scholars who have been impacted by the criminal justice system (system-impacted). Because of the demographics of the system-impacted population, these faculty candidates are more likely to be people of color. In addition, system-impacted faculty offer unique benefits to institutions and deserve equal consideration among peers on the academic job market. We argue that making the hiring process fairer for system-impacted candidates is an important strategy for diversifying the college faculty. To understand the challenges they face, we conducted semi-structured interviews of seven faculty with prior felony convictions to explore their motivations for pursuing faculty careers and how they navigated the academic job market. By sharing their stories, this article raises awareness of a marginalized population of faculty and offers new insights into their motivations, barriers, and successes in getting hired. Importantly, we found that deciding when and how to disclose their criminal histories was the most complicated part of the process for our participants, in part because of ambiguous criminal background check policies. To ensure equal opportunity and to form a more diverse faculty, we propose that higher education institutions eliminate the use of criminal history information in college admissions and faculty hiring processes or implement fairer, more transparent background check policies based in best practices.
... For example, most U.S. universities screen for criminal history in the admissions process (Custer, 2016), and a web of state and institutional policies prohibit some students (mostly those convicted of sexual offenses) from living in campus housing (Custer, 2018b). The ways in which justice-involved students are excluded from federal financial aid are described in detail below. ...
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The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction have long-lasting and devasting effects on people involved in the criminal justice system. From losing the ability to find employment, to being banned from public housing, to losing access to most federal benefits, “justice-involved” people face a life of punishment, even after their sentences are completed. One rarely discussed collateral consequence is the inability of justice-involved people to get state financial aid grants for college. It is well known that incarcerated people cannot get federal Pell Grants for college, but some states impose even more restrictive barriers on state-funded scholarships for students who were previously convicted of crimes or who are currently incarcerated. Through statutory or regulatory eligibility rules, policymakers in over half of states deny aid eligibility to one or more populations of justice-involved student, according to this study’s findings. The eligibility rules of these programs, often decades old, have never been investigated, leaving researchers without an understanding of the scope of the disenfranchisement of justice-involved students from state financial aid. This two-phase dissertation explores this policy issue. Because there was no existing research on this topic to build on, this dissertation begins with a descriptive study that illustrates the financial aid policy landscape for justice-involved students (Phase I). For the first time, I identified all the state grant programs that currently deny eligibility to incarcerated students and students with criminal convictions. The descriptive analysis also identifies when the policies were adopted and explores patterns in where the policies exist across the country. This accounting of policies unveils how commonly states deny aid to justice-involved students, something that policy researchers and advocates should scrutinize. Results from Phase I raised questions about the policymaking process, chiefly: how and why did state legislators adopt these eligibility rules to deny aid to justice-involved students? This is the pursuit of the policy adoption study (Phase II). Using qualitative case study methodology and framed in a conceptual model of state policy innovation and diffusion in higher education, I interviewed state policymakers and studied historical documents to understand the rationales for denying state grant aid to justice-involved students. Findings have implications for the study of state policy adoption as well as for policymakers and advocates seeking to restore state financial aid to justice-involved students.
... With regard to admissions, no federal or state statutes require a college or university to conduct background checks on prospective students (Dickerson, 2007). However, many 4-year institutions ask applicants to disclose any previous misdemeanor or felony conviction (Custer, 2016;Weissman et al., 2010). Although the Common Application, used by more than 800 colleges and universities, removed a question related to criminal history in August, 2018, it still asks about school disciplinary records (Dillion & Bernstein, 2018). ...
In this special issue, the five previous articles trace the longstanding presence and integration of carceral practices in both K-12 and postsecondary education systems. As illuminated by the authors, carceral practices disproportionately criminalize students of color and impact pathways, trajectories, and how educational opportunities are experienced. In our review and closing comments for this special issue, we expand and share three emergent themes running throughout this volume: 1) Power Analysis, an investigation of macro systems and structures that determine specific contexts entrapping current and prospective students in the carceral system; 2) Worth/Value, an interrogation of the paradigms contributing to the devaluation, and ultimate criminalization, of Black and Latinx students within educational spaces; 3) Reform or Reimagine?, an inquiry and challenge on whether to advance with useful, but insufficient, changes to an unjust system or a move forward with new wide-sweeping and radical approaches to minimize damage to individuals. Our paper concludes with reimagining educational systems using these more radical approaches.
In 2017, Louisiana became the first state to pass legislation to remove criminal history questions from college applications, commonly known as ban the box in higher education. This victory hinged on the work of two advocates, Syrita Steib, Founder and Executive Director of Operation Restoration, and Annie Phoenix, PhD student at Tulane University and Co-founder of Operation Restoration. The following article is a reflection on the process to pass ban the box in higher education in Louisiana and lessons learned to support others to engage in criminal legal system reform. We hope that this article serves as inspiration for other women impacted by incarceration, and nonimpacted supporters to use their voices to fight for liberation and to end the collateral consequences that prevent people with convictions from accessing education and other opportunities.
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Federal and state governments regulate the character of their residents as a condition of immigration, employment, social services, and beyond. At the state level, “good moral character” rules have been analyzed in depth for decades, mostly as they pertain to admission to the bar and other licensed professions. Character requirements also affect the ability of college students to get state-funded financial aid, but these policies have received no scholarly analysis. According to this study’s findings, there have been at least 54 state financial aid grant programs with character rules, which begs the question: what does it mean to be a “good” college student? This paper offers an original study of the character requirements of state financial aid programs, including analysis of how character requirements were and still are interpreted and enforced. New insights are offered on the meaning of good moral character in this higher education law context that contribute to the wider literature on the use of good moral character requirements.
This chapter focuses on student organizations for those with criminal convictions. In particular, this chapter examines the challenges associated with creating and maintaining such organizations. Most pointedly, the authors offer advice and direction on how to navigate potential obstacles to forming student groups comprised of convicted students. To do so, this chapter will chronicle a failed organization and a successful organization, highlighting the potential benefits of formation, obstacles to formation, and methods for successfully overcoming barriers to formation. This chapter intends to serve as a guide for faculty and staff at universities seeking to expand the concept of inclusive education by establishing student organizations dedicated to the recruitment and advancement of students with criminal histories. In sum, this chapter is a process analysis informed by the perspectives of two faculty advisors to such student organizations from distinct cultural and political settings.
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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.
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As human services professionals, we in higher education value helping people and often get personally invested in their stories. The people we serve, primarily students, face challenges in applying and paying for college, completing coursework and degrees, and finding employment after graduation. Along the way, college administrators strive to provide support through policy-driven programs and services. However, the special admission policy for students with felony convictions may be contradictory to the philosophy of higher education (Custer, 2013). Upon investigation, what I observed raised more questions than answers, and the essence of my confusion springs from a single college applicant’s story. This article, a case study at one institution, is meant to spark reflection about the way admission offices treat the students who may need higher education the most: ex-offenders.
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Much of the present research available on formerly incarcerated Black males (FIBMs) focuses primarily on their criminal experiences and subsequent effects on their personal lives, employment options, and repeat offenses. Despite the overwhelming number of Black men in the U.S. criminal justice system and the country’s goal of increasing the proportion of citizens who earn postsecondary degrees, little is known about the postsecondary adjustment and transition experiences of FIBMs. This exploratory study represents an initial attempt to address a gap in the research by centering on two questions: (a) What challenges do FIBMs face in adjusting and transitioning to college? (b) What supports help FIBMs persist in college? Employing a constructivist qualitative approach, FIBMs were interviewed via one-on-one semi-structured interviews over a period of 12 months at public research institutions within the United States. Analysis of interview data yielded three major themes: (a) ex-offender label as impediment and motivation for higher education, (b) importance of support networks, and (c) development of resiliency. Implications for policy, practice, and future research are highlighted.
As one of the few qualitative studies on this topic, this phenomenological study examined how parolees experience participation in a community college reentry program. One-on-one interviews were conducted with 11 parolee college students. Major themes found that parolees enjoy the college environment and that they have become role models for their families as a result of their college experiences. Most participants also believe that taking community college classes has improved their parole experiences and will decrease their chances of returning to prison. This research reveals a potential role for more community colleges to serve such parolee populations as part of their public good mission.
Objectives: Many colleges assess criminal histories during the admissions process, in part, to address violence on campus. This study sought to examine the utility of screening as a means of reducing violence. Methods: Using cohort and case-control analyses, we identified college misconduct through college records and self-reports on a confidential survey of graduating seniors, and examined precollege behaviour as indicated on admissions records, a survey and criminal background checks. Results: One hundred and twenty students met our case definition of college misconduct, with an estimated OR of 5.28 (95% CI 1.92 to 14.48) associated with precollege misconduct revealed on the college application. However, only 3.3% (95% CI 1.0% to 8.0%) of college seniors engaging in college misconduct had reported precollege criminal behaviours on their applications and 8.5% (95% CI 2.4% to 20.4%) of applicants with a criminal history engaged in misconduct during college. Discussion: Though precollege behaviour is a risk factor for college misconduct, screening questions on the application are not adequate to detect which students will engage in college misconduct. This pilot work would benefit from replication to determine the utility of criminal background investigations as part of admissions.
The admitted student with a criminal past poses special dilemmas.
A primary question post-Virginia Tech has been how to improve safety on campus. This article encourages colleges and universities­ as one part of a comprehensive, environmental risk-management plan ­to conduct criminal background checks on applicants for admission. The article begins by examining recent incidences of student-on-student on or near campus. It then discusses current college and university practices regarding student background checks. Next, the article explores myriad legal and policy issues related to background checks, and concludes with specific steps schools should follow if campus leadership decides to implement background checks. In sum, the article concludes that background checks can help colleges and universities to create a reasonably safe educational environment.
Violence on college campuses has attracted considerable media attention in recent years as a result of several high-profile shootings, including those at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois Universities. These shootings, however, are only the most visible form of student violence. Although college students are less likely to be victims of violent crime than their non-college counterparts,1 studies suggest that student-perpetrated violence—especially intimate partner violence—is a public health problem. College men have reported 3-month and 1-year incidence rates of rape perpetration of 4% and 5%2 3; 10% of college men and 25% of college women have reported committing physical aggression in their most recent relationship4; and 46% of college men and 18% of college women have reported committing physical aggression toward strangers in the last year.5 Just over 4% of college students (8% of men and 1% of women) have acknowledged having firearms at college.6 Student violence prompted a national response in 1989 when Congress passed The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (“Clery Act”).7 Named after Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered by another student in 1986, the Clery Act requires colleges to publish information about campus crime, allowing parents and applicants to compare safety across schools. It does not specify preventive interventions, however. One intervention that a growing number of undergraduate institutions are adopting, according to newspaper reports, is to screen applicants on the basis of their criminal histories.8–12 Schools are examining criminal histories by (1) asking applicants to self-report specific information about their histories and/or (2) running independent criminal background checks on applicants. Schools differ on which crimes warrant denial of admission, and some schools impose lesser sanctions for more minor crimes—for example, students may be admitted but required …
Do your students have criminal records? Is it even fair to ask? The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • K Mangan
Mangan, K. (2015, March 2). Do your students have criminal records? Is it even fair to ask? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from