The college application process is also tied to the Prison Industrial Complex. Nearly 72% of colleges require criminal history information in their application process. A study conducted in 2019 looking to understand how a criminal record would impact an individual’s likelihood of college acceptance sent matched pairs of same-race applications to a sample of US four-year universities. In this experiment, both applicants would apply as either white or Black but within this matched pair the one difference would be that one would signal a low-level felony conviction if this was required in the application process. The results of this study were astounding. The rejection rate for applicants who checked the box for a felony conviction were rejected at nearly 2.5 times the rate of the control applicants. The researchers also found that when students were applying to a school with a higher campus crime rate, compared to similar white applicants, Black applicants with a felony conviction were especially likely to be rejected by the school. Given that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets Black youth, this admissions practice of rejecting applicants based on their criminal background discriminates against students of color and perpetuates a system that bars opportunity for those who may need it most. Many college admissions staff claim that they still include this criminal record question to maintain campus safety. However, evidence shows that denying applicants with a criminal background has no impact on campus safety. Additionally, there is no difference in the crime rates at schools that screen applicants for a criminal background and schools that have elected to remove this question.
The very inclusion of this criminal history question deters students who have committed a crime to even submit their college applications in the first place. A 2020 study found that 62% of potential college applicants with a criminal background do not complete an opened college application when the criminal history question is on the form, compared to 21% of applicants who have no criminal history and open an application but do not submit. This admissions practice of rejecting students with a criminal background constitutes racial exclusion is a direct act of complicity with the United States carceral state. The 72% of institutions that include this question on their application are denying disproportionately poor students of color from even considering their schools as an option. Higher education has the ability to transform lives and lift young people out of poverty. College is meant to be a place of opportunity and growth, yet their admissions practices are hurting those who would potentially benefit the most from higher education. A criminal history is a significant impediment to receiving a higher education. Supporting banning the box on college applications is an important action item for those who are involved with institutions of higher education. If college admissions offices claim to value racial inclusion and condemn systemic racism, then they should remove requirements for indicating a criminal background on their application.