Banning the Box on College Applications

By Michael Klazema on 11/3/2020

Could ban the box policies be heading toward college campuses? Based on a new law pending in Pennsylvania, the answer is yes.

What You Need to Know about Ban the Box

Ban the box policies are not a new trend. For years, legislators at the local, state, and national levels have been pushing to pass ordinances and laws that reduce the focus placed on criminal history in the employment screening process.

Typically, a ban the box policy will prohibit employers from asking questions related to criminal backgrounds on job applications. “The box” refers to the section of some employment applications that asks candidates to check a box indicating whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.

Fair chance or second chance employment advocates argue that removing the box from job applications gives ex-offenders a chance to prove their qualifications for a job and compete for employment. Some ban the box policies go one step further, barring employers from running criminal background checks until after they have made conditional offers of employment to their choice candidates.

According to the National Employment Law Project, 36 states and more than 150 cities and counties throughout the United States have passed ban the box legislation. Many of these laws only apply to public sector employment. Fourteen states and 35 cities or counties extend their second chance hiring laws to private companies.

There has also been a push to bring ban the box protections to the federal level. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to delay background checks and other criminal history inquiries until later in the employment screening process.

The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act was adopted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2019. The new law, which goes into effect in December 2021, will require most federal agencies and contractors to delay criminal background inquiries of any kind until after they make conditional employment offers.

Second Chance Protections for College Education

While ban the box policies aren’t new in the employment world, they are less common in higher education. According to 2019 report from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), 70 percent of four-year colleges require admissions applicants to report whether they have been convicted of criminal activity. The number is lower for public universities (55 percent) than for private colleges (81 percent), and lower still for two-year community colleges (40 percent). Still, the practice is pervasive in the American higher education industry.

Legislation pending in Pennsylvania would make it illegal for public colleges and universities in the state to ask candidates about most types of criminal history. The law would apply to Pennsylvania’s 14 public institutions of higher learning with a total student population of about 94,000. It would also apply to community colleges and technical colleges in the state.

Prospective students would still have to disclose serious criminal offenses, such as murder, sexual assault or rape, stalking, or similar crimes. The law would limit an administrator’s ability to reject applicants based on minor crimes. Proponents of the legislation say that banning the box at colleges is a critical step to give ex-offenders opportunities to better themselves and build pathways toward gainful employment.

Should the Pennsylvania law pass, it could lead to a wave of ban the box policies for higher education. Keep an eye on the blog for the latest on ban the box laws and other background check and hiring-related trends.

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