Allard: Ban the Box

Banning the box needs to be reworked before applying it to college applications.

by Sydney Allard | 4/19/18 2:05am

Buried among queries about ethnicity, GPA, extra-curricular activities and legacy status, high school students will find the following question on the Common Application: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?”

Many Dartmouth students probably do not remember answering that question — for them, it was just one of many tedious boxes to check on the Common Application. But for applicants with criminal records, the question is memorable. One study found that when a question about criminal history was included on the SUNY application, 62.5 percent of applicants with criminal records failed to complete the application process. 

Some groups advocate for banning the question from college applications so that people with criminal records have a better chance at receiving higher education. However, when that same question was banned from job applications, the result was not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Rather than jumping to remove the question from applications entirely, colleges should encourage students with criminal records to apply but also ensure that they do, at some point, get access to all students’ criminal records. This would enable them to do their part in keeping students safe and to provide necessary resources to students who have been incarcerated.

Ban the Box started as a campaign to remove questions about a person’s criminal history from job applications. Requiring applicants to disclose this information not only makes it more difficult for formerly incarcerated people to get jobs, but often also dissuades potential applicants from applying in the first place. Formerly incarcerated people are much more likely to reoffend if they can’t find employment. Therefore, the argument goes, it is in society’s best interest to help them get jobs. 

Ban the Box campaigns are now springing up on college campuses. New York University recently decided to review undergraduate applications without knowledge of applicants’ prior convictions, and a Ban the Box movement is gaining popularity at Wesleyan University. Supporters of Ban the Box say that reporting criminal history unfairly disadvantages minority students, considering that students of color, especially black students, are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white counterparts. In fact, black people are more than six times more likely to serve time for drug-related offenses than white people. Considering a student’s criminal history when determining whether to accept them only adds to the discrimination that minorities face. However, while the idea is certainly noble, banning the box on job applications has had unexpected adverse effects on the people it aimed to help. 

Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon compared employment data for low-skilled men in areas with and without Ban the Box policies. They found that banning the box decreased the probability of young, low-skilled black men being employed by 5.1 percent.

These findings have been replicated. Amanda Agan of Princeton University and Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan Law School submitted thousands of fake applications online and found that before banning the box was implemented, white applicants were called back only marginally more often than black applicants. After the box was banned, that disparity skyrocketed: white applicants were called back six times more than their black counterparts. 

The researchers postulate that when employers can’t see data about an applicant’s criminal record, they make assumptions based entirely on race. Employers know that white applicants are less likely to have criminal records than black and Latino applicants, so some of them look upon all white applicants more favorably than upon black and Latino applicants. As a result, the only formerly incarcerated people who benefit from banning the box on college applications are those who are white. 

All of this goes to show that racism runs deep and affects far more than just the criminal justice system. Racism, whether conscious or not, will persist despite banning the box. It would be irresponsible not to bear this in mind when considering whether to ban the box on college applications.

One may think that banning the box on college applications would be easier. Since college admissions officers actively seek out diverse student bodies, they are purportedly less likely to make rash decisions based purely on subconscious racial stereotypes. Their existing biases could be balanced by explicit efforts toward diversity. However, banning the box on college applications presents a unique set of challenges. 

Colleges are committed to creating safe environments for their students, especially for minors. While the vast majority of crimes committed on campuses are not committed by people with criminal records, it isn’t unreasonable for colleges to want to know who on their campuses has committed a crime. In fact, it would be a liability for colleges to have violent offenders among their student body without knowing it. 

It’s also likely to be in the best interest of students with a criminal record for the institution to be aware, and therefore able to provide support. College is a big adjustment for anyone, let alone someone who has spent time in the prison system. Without knowledge of students’ criminal records, colleges can’t provide formerly incarcerated students with the resources they might need. 

Most colleges assert that simply checking the box does not disqualify an applicant from being accepted. Kelly Walter, Boston University’s associate vice president and executive director of admissions, said that “regardless of the answer, we would never deny a student admission based on the response to that question.”

Since checking the box does not determine whether a student’s application will be considered, and since the box’s presence deters students with criminal records from applying at all, I propose that the question be left off of the initial application, and only asked once a student has already been accepted. Then, the crime should be reviewed by a group of specially-trained faculty. If the crime reveals that a student is highly likely to pose a threat of violence, then the college can rescind the acceptance — students know that their acceptance can be rescinded in extenuating circumstances. But, more often than not, I suspect colleges will find applicants worthy of a second chance.