After years of pressure from high profile politicians, civil rights activists, particularly those who advocate for Ban the Box, and educational professional organizations who fight tirelessly to make higher education accessible and inclusive, the Common Application for the 2019-2020 admission cycle set to roll out late July will look a little different. For the first time since 2006, the Common Application has dropped the question about applicants’ criminal history causing civil rights activists to celebrate. The website states that “The Common Application is committed to advancing access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process.” Removing the question is a huge step in leveling the playing field and limiting bias against black and Latino applicants. After all, a check on a box does not give an admissions officer enough information. Questions like when the infraction occurred are left unanswered. In some cases an incident could have happened when the applicant was just 15 years old. A lifetime could have passed in those four years and is it likely admission officers are proficient enough in the law to even know how to properly assess a criminal record?
While this change is a huge step for the Ban the Box movement, we still have a long way to go. Even though the Common Application has removed this question from the general application, individual universities still have the option to add it to their own application. And the question about disciplinary infractions and suspensions remains a part of the Common Application. This issue will certainly be the next battle. Marsha Weissman, former executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives has her gloves on ready to take this on. She states, “Leaving the question about school discipline, at least as it applies to high school, is ridiculous based on the vagaries of how discipline varies by district.. and has roots in racial bias. It also overemphasizes behavior done by adolescents — and flies in the face of the science of adolescent brain development. Even the juvenile justice system is recognizing that.”
Those of us committed to a more level playing field in the admissions process should acknowledge the important progress made in removing the criminal record question, but continue to advocate for eliminating other racially biased factors and lingering punishment for truly youthful indiscretions. Hopefully The College Board as well as individual college admissions offices will catch up with what we now know about adolescent behavior and the long term impact of stigmatizing young adults and hampering their future opportunities through what may be the poor choices of underdeveloped temporal lobes.