Civil rights organizations push to reform college admissions process

By Katie Rucke | Mar 23, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For years, a disproportionate number of minority students have entered into the criminal justice system compared to their white counterparts. 

Now some civil rights organizations are calling for changes within the college admissions process, hoping to lessen barriers students face post-high school, as well as bring an end to the school-to-prison pipeline.

In February, the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law requested the creators of the Common Application–which was completed by 860,000 students last year–eliminate questions regarding school disciplinary history. 

“Research and data confirm that exclusionary and overly harsh school disciplinary policies have a disproportionate impact on students of color,” Lawyers’ Committee Educational Opportunities Project Director Brenda Shum told the Northern California Record.

The request to remove students’ school disciplinary history from college applications is part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Chance in Higher Education initiative, which launched in January. Before the group approached Common Application, it focused on 17 schools in seven states in the South. 

“These institutions had some variations in terms of the questions they asked, but each of them sought information related to non-conviction criminal background on their college applications,” Shum said.

Given many suspensions are for relatively minor offenses like telling off a teacher, wearing a hat to class or not doing homework, lumping everyone together who has had a suspension could be risky, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids–California State Director Brian Lee told the Northern California Record. Suspension for safety-related issues is much more limited.

Disclosing discipline-related questions on a college application is a concern to the group because it “may exacerbate the long-term and unintended consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline,” Shum said. 

But not everyone agrees.

A student’s discipline information is needed to piece together a more complete idea of who the applicant is, Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College and a board member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, told the Associated Press.

"After the Virginia Tech shooting, colleges really started to look closely at the responsibility the admissions office had in seeing whether there's some warning signs that are going to come along with it," he said. A suspension for not pulling up one’s socks, cheating, cyberbullying and felony convictions are taken in context.

Lawyers’ Committee is “absolutely committed to ensuring that our college campuses are safe and healthy learning environments,” Shum said. “However, we have seen no data that would demonstrate that these incidents could have been prevented had the university solicited this type of information during the college admissions process.”

There are a time and place where suspensions can be appropriate. Schools interested in real safety issues could limit question on disciplinary actions to those involving safety, Lee said.

“That may be a more limiting question that wouldn’t lump everyone together.”

In January, New York University asked Common Application to examine whether the information does allow admissions teams to keep a campus safe or if it discourages minority applicants. Aba Blankson, senior director at the Common Application, told the AP the not-for-profit was exploring the impact the questions have, adding that in the interim, an applicant has the ability to expand on why they received discipline.

"A student can say in ninth grade, I was expelled or suspended and because of that incident, the alcohol thing I did, I became interested in (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or became a volunteer," Blankson said.

But for New Yorker Miaija Jawara, even with the chance to explain a one-day suspension she received in 10th grade due to a schoolyard fight, the high school senior told the AP she is concerned receiving disciplinary action has lessened her chances of being admitted to schools.

"It was, like, two years ago," Jawara said. "I'm definitely not the same person I was then. So I think they shouldn't judge me on something I did when I was so naive and so immature. I've grown since that experience."

Without a clear benefit to campus safety and no way to ensure minority students are not disproportionately impacted, Shum said her group is asking all colleges and universities, public or private, to review their admissions policies and asking all to “voluntarily remove these types of questions from their application forms.”

The Lawyers’ Committee has sent letters to the 17 Southern schools it studied, requesting a change in admissions policies and practices.

 “Some of those schools responded positively to our request, and voluntarily agreed to eliminate such questions from their application or to modify their language or their request for such information,” Shum said. “Others requested additional time to conduct their own research. Some did not respond at all.”

As for Common Application, the group has invited Lawyers’ Committee to have a conversation with them about their policies and practices, but has not made a commitment beyond that.

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Organizations in this Story

Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Marist College

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