Higher Education Tries to Move "Beyond the Box"

By Michael Klazema on 12/27/2019

It's no secret that a steep road lies ahead for individuals seeking to re-enter society after a period of incarceration. While the focus often falls on removing barriers to employment to promote reintegration, there are other roadblocks that can make moving forward an even bigger challenge. 

For those who want to develop a career or accept an advanced professional position, higher education is often a necessity. There are background checks in education, and many applications, including the most common application format used by hundreds of universities, have asked applicants to disclose their criminal history—until now.

As the "Fair Chance" and "Ban the Box" movements have grown, their scope has widened beyond just advocating for legislation that mandates the removal of criminal history questions from job applications. With increasing awareness of the barriers that exist in education, the movement has pushed for administrators to apply the same principles to colleges and universities. The "Beyond the Box" initiative, launched during the Obama administration, strongly encourages institutions of higher learning to stop using criminal history on applications. 

Data appears to support the movement’s goals: in one study, 60% of the prospects who indicated a criminal history when applying to a New York school did not finish the process.

For some campus advocates, "beyond the box" policies represent a continued or increased risk for campus violence and sexual assault. Complicating matters is an ongoing debate in education over "transcript notations"—indications on a student's record of disciplinary actions or accusations that follow him or her from school to school. Some argue that these notes re-introduce discrimination at a later stage of education and could make it hard for students to pursue graduate studies. Others point to the many incidents in which students evade discipline at one school only to commit crimes again elsewhere.

Administrators and legislators have the challenging task of balancing a fair second chance with the need for a safe campus. 

In implementing its new "beyond the box" policies in 2019, the University of Illinois tried to strike such a balance. There are no questions concerning past convictions on its application, but the university does inquire into criminal histories following initial acceptance. The university believes that it balances a fair chance at proving suitability with the need to protect the student body through the continued use of background checks in education. 

With criminal records following tens of millions of Americans, expect to see higher education reshaping itself to suit modern demands. As these policies develop, more individuals may access the education that they need to develop a stable life post-incarceration. Taking advantage of opportunities such as criminal record expungement through MyClearStart and is a way for ex-offenders to seize every opportunity to pursue higher education without barriers. 

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