Written By: Therese King Nohos

The University of Illinois reportedly revised its admissions application to omit questions about applicants’ criminal backgrounds. The flagship university will continue to ask for criminal background information but only after an admissions decision has been made. The change comes as a result of a student-led initiative to “ban the box.” Prior legislative efforts to bar Illinois’ public universities from inquiring into applicants’ criminal background during the admissions process had failed as opinion remains sharply divided about the value of the question.

This student-driven initiative comes amid increasing scrutiny of the use of criminal background questions in college applications. The Common Application recently dropped the question as well for the 2019-20 academic year, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. Member schools using the Common Application remain free to add the question to their supplement, however.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that, while most colleges still ask for such information, there is no evidence that those campuses are safer than those which omit the question. There is growing concern that the mere presence of the question dissuades otherwise qualified applicants from completing an application and that the question disproportionately impacts students of color. The Department encourages institutions to consider whether collecting the information is necessary and, if so, to consider deferring when the information is requested until after an admissions decision has been made. Its guide, Beyond the Box, provides suggestions for balancing competing safety concerns.

As institutions struggle to maintain enrollment with changing demographics, they should carefully consider whether including the question on their application presents an unnecessary barrier to entry for otherwise qualified applicants. Institutions that continue to collect the information should ensure that their admissions personnel are appropriately trained to evaluate the information collected. Institutions should ensure that applicants are not admitted to programs leading to a career where their criminal background will be an barrier to employment in their field. But they must also ensure that faulty assumptions do not bar otherwise qualified individuals from pursuing their education.

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