Staff Editorial: GW should stop asking applicants about felony convictions

Many students probably think nothing of checking off yet another box on college applications – even the box next to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Most swiftly check “no” and move on to the next section. But for some applicants, that small box can be the difference between applying and being buried in paperwork – or being too discouraged to apply to a university at all.

It’s time GW bans the box.

“Banning the box” isn’t a new idea. In December 2014, Syracuse, N.Y.’s city council passed a Ban the Box ordinance that requires the city and contractors doing business in the city to not ask job applicants about criminal convictions until applicants have received tentative job offers.

More recently, the State University of New York system’s board of trustees voted to remove any questions about felony convictions from undergraduate applications, citing concerns that the question posed barriers for prospective students. SUNY’s move is progressive, and GW should be the first private institution to follow their lead.

In the SUNY model, students who are admitted to one of the system’s universities are asked to disclose whether they have committed a felony if they’re applying for on-campus housing or if they later apply to study abroad. This model is a healthy balance between student comfort and safety and giving every applicant a fair chance. A student with a criminal record may affect a learning environment because he or she can bring new ideas and perspectives to any given topic. However, that doesn’t mean that other students should have to feel uncomfortable in their residence hall rooms. In a GW model, therefore, officials should take students’ violent criminal histories into consideration when assigning on-campus housing.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said admissions officials currently use the Common Application’s question about felonies but consider applicants holistically.

“As a residential campus we believe it’s important to balance ensuring a safe campus community while not making admission decisions based simply upon how a student checks one box,” Csellar wrote in an email.

Even though felons could still be admitted to the University, there’s a stigma around the word “felony.” When people hear the word, they might imagine a stereotyped image of who a felon is. They might assume a felon is a murderer or a sexual predator. Rarely do people stop and think about what a felon’s crime was and consider that he or she might want to turn over a new leaf.

People who have been convicted of felonies who want to go through higher education should be rewarded for making the effort to rehabilitate themselves after serving the time for their crimes. They want to make something of themselves, instead of falling back into patterns that would land them to prison again.

And we all probably know someone who has committed an act of vandalism or has been publicly intoxicated. Those are felonies, yet we still go to school and live with these people – some of whom have not been punished. We find them OK because they blend in with the rest of the students on campus. However, those who have been convicted of any level of felony might be uncomfortable disclosing it on an application out of fear of judgment.

Already, students who disclose felonies on their applications are generally not taken out of consideration for admission. A 2015 study found nearly nine out of ten applicants with disclosed felonies ultimately were admitted to a SUNY college. However, that’s only the statistic for students who can finish the application. After checking the box, applicants must complete an overwhelming amount of paperwork. More than 62 percent of students who check the box don’t complete their applications.

This self-reporting tactic might make applicants feel less worthy of applying to a university. And many of these applicants may have committed offenses that shouldn’t keep them from interacting with other students.

It’s likely that most students who would disclose a felony aren’t violent criminals. Those who have committed murders or sexual crimes aren’t likely to be in financial or living situations that would allow them to enroll in a university. People convicted of sex crimes have to register where they live and have certain parameters that regulate how close they can be to children and members of certain communities. School Without Walls is integrated with the Foggy Bottom campus, so the risk of registered sexual predators coming to GW is slim. We should protect those who are turning over a new leaf and not assume every felon is violent.

It’s understandable that, upon first hearing about it, banning the box might make some students or parents uncomfortable. But we can’t afford to be closed-minded. We’re members of a progressive university, and we should want to expand our perspectives by making GW accessible to all kinds of students. A person is not a danger to a university because he or she made a poor choice and then served their punishment.

It’s time officials judge applicants based on their current merits, not on their past mistakes.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.

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