NAICU Washington Update

Department of Education Seeks to Mitigate Barriers to Higher Education

May 18, 2016

The Department of Education is urging colleges and universities to reconsider questions about individuals’ interactions with the criminal justice system on admissions applications. To assist colleges in addressing this issue, the Department created a website, fact sheet, and issued a guide intended to help institutions of higher education think through new approaches to questions about criminal justice. Although the guide is not explicit, it appears the general recommendations are intended to benefit low-level offenders and not those convicted of crimes that are violent or sexual in nature. As of now, all suggested changes to admissions applications are optional.

In a letter sent by Education Secretary John King to college and university leaders, the Department’s “Beyond the Box” initiative highlights the importance and value of postsecondary education as a means to reduce recidivism, promote safety, and prepare people to lead law-abiding and productive lives. Citing research which finds that the collection and use of criminal justice information poses a significant barrier to postsecondary access and training to young people, the Department offers a series of recommendations for designing admissions policies that will avoid creating unnecessary barriers for prospective students who have been involved in the justice system. The recommendations include:

  1. Avoiding the use of ambiguous criminal justice terms;
  2. Clearly defining what information should not be disclosed;
  3. Avoiding overly broad requests about criminal history;
  4. Including a time limit on criminal background data;
  5. Inquiring about convictions, not arrests; and
  6. Tailoring questions about criminal justice involvement to avoid unnecessarily precluding applicants from entering training programs, and thus employment, for which they might be eligible.

The guide provides specific examples and processes for how these recommendations could be implemented. It also provides specific examples of approaches institutions have already taken to address questions concerning criminal justice involvement for prospective students.

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