Box Ban Levels College Application Process

Annette Ungermann, News Editor

Starting next year, the Common Application– used by over 1 million college applicants and 830 schools nationwide –will no longer ask prospective students to fill the mandated bubble to disclose prior criminal history, a move that’s bound to ensure a more equitable path to higher education for all students.

This decision comes in spite of the results of a survey in March that revealed a majority of universities that use the Common App wanted to know applicants’ criminal histories, according to the Atlantic.

With little opportunity to relay the most important aspects of oneself, perhaps the Common App’s future ban suggests that colleges are less able to offer a truly “holistic” admission decision. But does full disclosure really put an applicant at an inherent disadvantage?

It’s difficult to say; the Common App doesn’t keep data about criminal histories public. And, it’s impossible to provide a statistic of students who considered applying to a college but refrained in fear of disclosing any disciplinary or criminal history. This is ultimately irrelevant. The truth lies where the numbers don’t– asking a student to disclose their criminal and disciplinary history puts many at an inherent disadvantage.

While other writing on the application is meant to reveal the character and identity of an applicant, the main difference is that personal statements and supplemental essay questions are more directly linked to a student’s control over their narrative. With the disclosure of a criminal past or past disciplinary infractions, the applicant gives up a degree of control, no matter if they’re able to justify a moment of weakness, lapse of judgment or misdemeanor in a separate writing supplement. Society-wide biases naturally work against any justification, no matter the strength.

However, this is not an apologist testimony on behalf of felons that wish to hide an integral part of who they are. More than that, it’s the admittance of a shade of gray. Any campaign to ban the “box,” as it’s called, acknowledges the strong stigma attached to a prospective employee or student’s criminal record. Disclosure of this information may actually inhibit a truly holistic application review process, as the weight of a conviction can easily overpower any other information provided on an application.

On the other hand, universities may cite safety as a priority and rationalize the persistence of this box on an application as a way to protect their campus. Another justification in favor of the box ties into the idea of a holistic review– institutions want a complete understanding of a student’s background so that they’re able to provide appropriate support to every kind of student.

Yet it’s necessary to consider the demographic implications in order to understand why eliminating the “box” is the right decision. The applicants that benefit from this change are likely those that often find higher education to be out of reach: low-income students of color. This is also the demographic that’s historically been disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system and has been subject to more school discipline.

According to a 2017 Brown Center report on American education, data from 2015 shows black students had a suspension rate of 17.8%, over 4 times the rate of their white peers at 4.4%.

Additionally, according to the same report, “Out-of-school suspensions are associated with low achievement, poor attendance, and juvenile crime—a combination of undesirable outcomes that can push students into what has been called the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.'” Racial disparities exist at school and in the justice system, which creates a disproportionate barrier to higher education for disadvantaged students.

Making mistakes are part of growing up. Banning the “box” on the Common App recognizes this.

At Campolindo, a school with a traditionally stellar graduation rate and from which the majority of students subsequently go on to a 4-year institution, it’s easy to brush aside the Common App’s decision as inapplicable. Which is essentially true– for the vast majority of seniors that are in the thick of the application process like me, a disciplinary history and criminal record are not a hindrance to our college application. They’re likely not even on our radar.

But it’s important to take note that our near-universal expectation of college (or another path to success) is not universal; for many, anxiety about admittance into college stems from very different roots. If the Common App can in any way level the playing field so that misdemeanors don’t have the potential to overshadow and inhibit admittance, a more equitable path to higher education is in our future.