At this time of the year, high school seniors across the state of Illinois and around the nation are busy preparing for their final exams and, more significantly, their walk across the stage to accept their diplomas. For the majority of these young people, the next stop on their academic journey will be the start of their freshman year at their college of choice.
As difficult as the process of applying to college can seem -- filing out endless pages of applications, writing innumerable essays, etc. -- it can be that much more difficult for those with criminal records. That's because more often than not, they encounter a question just a few pages in asking them whether they "been convicted or adjudicated guilty of a felony or misdemeanor," and their answer is to simply stop filling out the application regardless of their individual circumstances.
If you don't believe it, consider a 2015 study of 2,924 people with a felony conviction on their records who began the process of filing out applications to State University of New York. Here, the study found that as many as two-thirds of these people simply abandoned their SUNY applications due in large part to the questions about their criminal background and likely their accompanying feeling that the exercise was futile.
In recognition of this reality, and how it can create yet another obstacle for already disadvantaged students, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter and a copy of its "Beyond the Box" guide to college presidents across the nation earlier this month.
These communications urge the heads of institutions of higher learning to foster the growth of diverse student bodies and, more significantly, to avoid creating "unnecessary barriers for prospective students who have been involved with the justice system."
According to agency officials, one way to achieve this latter goal is for colleges and universities to determine what kind of information on criminal history, if any, they need from prospective students and, at the very least, avoid asking them about it early on in the admissions process.
All of this becomes disconcerting when you consider that as many as 66 percent of colleges and universities currently ask for information on criminal records from all applicants.
While the Department of Education has no way to enforce its proposal, here's hoping colleges and universities start paying more attention to this very real problem of stigmatization based on criminal record and take steps to truly move beyond the box.
If you are a young person who is under investigation or has already been formally charged with any sort of drug offense or other serious crime, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional who will fight to protect your freedom and your future as soon as possible.