So Nixon applied for college.
She started with an application for State University of New York College at Old Westbury, a state school on Long Island. She answered all the standard questions: name, previous education, desired major. Then, she came to a question asking whether she had a criminal background. There were two boxes — yes and no. She checked yes.
The school didn’t reject Nixon immediately. First, they asked her for an array of supplementary materials — an official rap sheet, a letter explaining her crime and what she’d done since, and additional letters of recommendation. Nixon provided them, but ultimately Old Westbury denied her admission.
Many former prisoners have felt this chilling effect of “the box,” which has spurred a national campaign to ban questions about criminal history on applications. But the “Ban the Box” campaign has focused its effort on job applications. The idea has gained support in 17 states and more than 100 municipalities that have passed laws making it more difficult for employers to discriminate against people with convictions. In February, Georgia made it unlawful for state agencies to ask about criminal backgrounds on job applications. Virginia adopted a similar law in April. And the New York City Council approved “ban the box” legislation this month, prohibiting both public and private employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories.
Because people with jobs are less likely to commit crimes, these laws reduce recidivism and keep communities safer. But even in areas that ban the box on job applications, education remains a barrier to gainful employment for many people with criminal backgrounds. There are no prohibitions on asking about criminal history on college applications.
Research on the effect of “the box” on college admissions decisions, while limited, suggests that it’s a major hurdle for applicants with criminal histories. In 2010, the Center for Community Alternatives surveyed 3,248 colleges about how they use applicants’ criminal histories in admissions. Of the 273 responding colleges, 55 percent said they do ask about criminal history on their initial applications and use the information in the admissions process. The Common Application, accepted at more than 500 schools nationwide, has a criminal-history question.
Alan Rosenthal, a criminal defense attorney and an author of the 2010 study, notes that “the box” presents a two-fold problem for college applicants with criminal histories. First, it typically triggers secondary application requirements that result in a high application attrition rate. Former inmates are often asked to obtain official documents and to complete additional paperwork that can be onerous and sometimes outright impossible to get. The additional requirements can include getting recommendations from a corrections official and an employer, obtaining an official list of charges filed, and a conversation with the applicant’s parole officer. Rosenthal said that one school required that the applicant have a full rap sheet sent directly from the state to the school, but that state wouldn’t send rap sheets to third parties, making it impossible to fulfill that request. With all the additional steps, and no guarantee of admissions at the end, many just give up.
At SUNY colleges, which screen for criminal history as a policy, the result has been a 62.5 percent median application attrition rate for those with a felony conviction, according to the Center for Community Alternatives. That’s three times higher than the overall application attrition rate. At some schools, the attrition rate is as high as 91.4 percent, creating a de facto ban on students with criminal records.
For felony applicants who do complete the process, some schools still offer them an extremely low chance of acceptance. The most egregious example is the Fashion Institute of Technology, which has an 82 percent felony application attrition rate as well as a 77.8 percent felony rejection rate, compared to a 55 percent rejection rate overall.
To me, these aren’t just numbers; it’s personal. In 2014, I graduated from college — with a felony. I was incredibly lucky. I’d been arrested for a drug crime in 2010 while attending Cornell University. I served my time, was released, and eventually was readmitted to Cornell, a process which I detailed in a piece earlier this year. Just days after completing my last class, I was hired as a reporter at The Ithaca Times. I know that having an education has helped me stay employed, and having a job that I love has helped me build a meaningful life, the sort that I don’t want to ruin by returning to a life of drugs and crime.
At the same time, I’ve watched women I did time with struggle to rebuild their lives, in part because of “the box.”
I met Stacy Burnett in 2011 at Albion Correctional Facility. She was smart, funny, and suffered from bipolar disorder. She says that it was during a manic episode that she bounced the thousands of dollars of checks that later turned into grand larceny charges. She served five years and was released in 2013.
After getting out, she applied to Ulster County Community College, a SUNY school. The school required she submit additional materials in order to be admitted. “The stuff that they asked for was crazy,” she said. They wanted a personal statement explaining the circumstances of the conviction and how her personal perspective would contribute to her success, permission to talk to her parole officer, and a full rap sheet. She’d already had a copy of her criminal history from the Department of Criminal Justice Services, but because it was partially redacted, “that wasn’t good enough and they wanted a certified rap sheet from New York State and I didn’t have that.” The certified document would have cost her $60, and with very little to her name, Burnett simply didn’t have the money.
Moving on, she tried Dutchess County Community College, also a SUNY school, but the results were not much different there. In the end, she gave up and found an online university.
While some argue that investigating applicants’ criminal histories makes campuses safer, there’s no evidence that’s true. A 2007 study found no significant difference in the campus crime rate at schools that did background checks versus schools that didn’t. Similarly, a 2013 study showed that background checks did not accurately predict students likely to commit crimes on campus. In fact, one of the worst campus tragedies in recent history — the Virginia Tech shooting — was committed by a man with no criminal record.
Not only that, screening for criminal history also exacerbates existing racial divides. About 60 percent of inmates are people of color and the overall incarceration rate for blacks is nearly six times higher than for whites. That means that, disproportionately, it is minority communities that bear the brunt of these policies.
Fortunately, there’s a glimmer of hope for progress. In New York state, there’s proposed legislation that could make the box a thing of the past for would-be college students. The Fair Access to Education Act would make it illegal for colleges to ask about or consider criminal background in admissions decisions. Instead, they’d have to ask that question post-admission, and only for consideration in terms of housing and support services.
The legislation is also known as Vivian’s Law — for Vivian Nixon.
Despite her initial rejection from Old Westbury, Nixon found another school and went on to graduate. Today, she works as the executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization dedicated to helping women with criminal histories pursue higher education. She’s held prestigious fellowships with the Open Society Foundation and the Petra Foundation and currently she’s a Columbia University Community Scholar. She’s been awarded a John Jay Medal for Justice and is an ordained deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
She told me that having a job and reason to live eliminated her need to self-medicate with illicit drugs. “Part of staying healthy, for me, and staying sober is being happy and staying fulfilled and doing something that I’m proud of in life,” she said. “I think that if I’d ended up being a hospital clerk for the rest of my life the depression would have led me back into addiction.”
As a society, it is imperative that we make it easier for former inmates to attend college. In part, it’s a matter of social justice. It’s also a matter of public safety. Numerous studies have shown that education reduces recidivism. So if we want to lower the crime rate, we need to make education accessible to former inmates. Banning the box on college applications not only gives people a chance to rehabilitate their lives, it also makes our communities safer.
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Blakinger is a prison reform activist and felon living in upstate New York.