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The State University of New York system voted Wednesday to remove questions about criminal history from applications to its schools, Syracuse.com reported.
The vote by the largest public university system in the US – with nearly half a million enrolled students – follows a push to “ban the box” at colleges and universities across the nation.
SUNY cited a study that found that while about 3,000 of its applicants answer “yes” on questions about felony convictions, only about 1,200 go on to complete applications, according to Syracuse.com.
In May, the Department of Education urged colleges and universities to remove questions about criminal history from applications.
The recommendation, described in the new report “Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals,” says colleges should remove the barriers to higher education for the “estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records.”
“We believe in second chances and we believe in fairness,” Secretary of Education John King Jr. said at a press conference, according to a release from the White House. “The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students.”
In unveiling the report, the Department of Education referred to a 2015 Center for Community Alternatives study that found that 63% of college applicants with felony convictions begin applications but do not finish them. Those numbers closely align with the findings at SUNY. Among all applicants, however, only 21% of applications go unfinished.
While 35% of colleges in a recent survey, highlighted by The Atlantic’s Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, acknowledged they had denied applicants because of their criminal history, experts argue that the questions themselves could intimidate and deter applicants from even completing the process.
Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, which helps formerly incarcerated women attain higher education, spoke of the damaging effect questions asking about criminal history could have on applicants.
“There’s a chilling effect for many students,” Nixon told Lantigua-Williams. “They interpret the questions as, ‘I’m not going to get in because I have a felony.'”
Though the US contains just 5% of the world’s population, the country accounts for 20% of the global incarcerations – the highest percentage in the world, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Prison incarceration also disproportionately affects men of color; one in three black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, according to a report from the Sentencing Project.