SUNY strives for equal education access

On Wednesday, Sept. 14, the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) system decided to stop asking high school applicants questions concerning their criminal histories. Affecting over 300,000 applicants at 64 campuses annually, this new admissions policy is an attempt to step away from institutionalized inequality in higher education.

SUNY made a bold choice to be the first university system to exclude criminal history requirements from the initial admissions process. The Center for Community Alternatives argues that there is no statistical difference in crime rates between schools that ask students about their criminal histories and those that do not. However, skeptics are concerned that the removal of questions about past felony convictions will drastically decrease safety on campuses, placing collegiate communities at risk.

To address such worries, SUNY has taken the measures necessary to eliminate potential risks. Some uncertainties center around sexual assault and the possibility that an increased number of assailants will be admitted into schools without the knowledge of the universities. However, sexual offenders are obligated to report changes in address to the city that they live in, which would then report that change to the college they plan on attending.

In regards to convictions other than sexual assault, applicants are only asked about their criminal record if they apply for on-campus housing or study abroad programs. As a result, past convictions will only affect how, and to what extent, students can interact with campus communities. This limits the negative impact a student’s past can have on their level of education and future financial stability.

The idea behind the less intrusive and more inclusive application is founded in the self-evident reality that the United States criminal justice system is both skewed and corrupt, convicting people of color disproportionately more than white people. According to the Department of Justice, one in five Americans have some form of a criminal record, with a disproportionate amount being people of color. This means that about 20% of the American population has been unjustly disadvantaged by criminal record requirements in college admissions for far too long.

SUNY has recognized that most students with criminal records who apply for college have already satisfied the sentence that resulted from their conviction, as they are not likely pursuing higher education from behind bars. These students should no longer be continuously penalized for past mistakes that have already been accounted for. SUNY’s decision is based on the fact that if criminal histories are permitted to affect the college enrollment of minority students, those specific incidents will remain limiting factors throughout the entirety of their lives. The new policy halts the practice of allowing criminal records to severely impact people of color more than, and longer than, the majority of Americans.

SUNY made an indisputably positive change that should be mirrored by university systems nationwide. In an era of efforts to increase the diversity of universities, many programs have been established to decrease achievement gaps that parallel race and class lines. Outreach programs, like TRIO and Reaching Our Goals (ROG) at St. Olaf, are successful in encouraging first generation students to apply for college. However, if one of the first questions on college applications requires reporting of past misdemeanors, the work of such programming is negated.

Criminal inquiries on applications have the power to deter first generation students from applying before having even written their admissions essays. Should a student have the determination to overcome this invalidating portion of the application, there is a large possibility that past misbehavior will result in rejection anyway. The requirement of prospective students’ criminal histories on college applications is entirely hypocritical amidst efforts to diversify staggeringly white campuses. These questions directly contradict the purpose of an application – to demonstrate ability, integrity and ambition.

In a post-industrial age, an undergraduate degree has become integral to living above the poverty line. Limiting college accessibility for people of color in college admissions has, and will continue to, play a sizeable role in perpetuating income inequality. The cycle of poverty that affects 13.5 percent of the United States population, according to the United States Census Bureau, is seen in this pattern of adolescents commiting felonies, being denied admission to universities and subsequently being confined to minimum wage.

Economic inequality is at an all-time high, and access to higher education has the power to break the cycle of poverty. A college education must not remain regulated by past behaviors attributable to disadvantaged environments, and while concerns for student safety are valid, the prioritization of these concerns is discriminatory. The removal of criminal history requirements from all college applications is an imperative step towards equal access to higher education for all.

Avery Ellfeldt ’19 (ellfel1@stolaf.edu) is from Denver, Colo. She majors in communications and cultural studies.

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