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EDITORIAL: Ban the box on criminal background questions in college applications

Northeastern Illinois University, including the the El Centro Campus, does not ask student applicants about criminal records. Northeastern is the exception among Illinois public universities. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

In the eyes of the FBI, more than 73 million Americans have a criminal record. They have been arrested on a felony charge at least once, even if never convicted.

All criminal records are not equal. One man might be a stone-cold killer, while another might have been picked up for felony shoplifting.

And there are huge racial disparities in who gets arrested and convicted in the United States, in part because of biases within the criminal justice system — what’s often called the New Jim Crow.


But there you have it: Three in every 10 adult Americans have a criminal record.

We can write them off, which will come back to haunt. Or we can open doors for them to live productive lives.

In Illinois, one of the most practical ways to open a door, given the importance of education in rebuilding a life, would be to prohibit colleges and universities from asking about an applicant’s past criminal record. According to one study, more than 60 percent of people with criminal records never bother to complete a college application form that includes that question. Once they check the box that says “yes,” they figure their chances of being admitted are dead anyway.

We support a bill in Springfield that would “ban the box” for public colleges in Illinois. We fully appreciate that the first priority of colleges is to keep their students safe, but there is no evidence that schools that don’t ask about criminal backgrounds are less safe. The bill, which has passed in the House but awaits action in the Senate, would allow public colleges to ask about a student’s criminal background only after the student is accepted — and only then for the purpose of providing counseling and other services.

In banning the box, Illinois would become part of a small but encouraging trend. Beginning next year, the Common Application — accepted by 800 schools, including 29 in Illinois — no longer will include a criminal background question. The states of Washington, Louisiana and Maryland have passed laws prohibiting their public colleges from including the question. The University of Minnesota banned the box in 2016.

Universities are striving to find a reasonable middle ground on this issue, and we can understand why. No college recruitment office wants parents to worry about their kids’ safety, even if those worries might not be justified. Eighty percent of private universities and more than half of four-year public universities still ask applicants about their past run-ins with the law. At the same, though, many universities make a point of not treating a criminal record as an automatic deal-breaker.

This desire to find a middle ground led the State University of New York in 2016 to remove long-standing questions about past felony convictions from its general application. But SUNY still asks students, once they are admitted, about any “prior felony conviction” when they apply for campus housing, an internship or permission to study abroad.

As one SUNY professor, William G. Martin, wrote, the university system didn’t really ban the box; it just “moved it down.” Since all freshmen on some campuses are required to live in student housing, and since 20 percent on some campuses study abroad, SUNY still is effectively making criminal background checks standard.

We’d love to see a more convincing middle ground, but we haven’t. As a practical matter, simply banning the box, without hedging, could be the best and only solution.

Public universities in Illinois, with the exception of Northeastern Illinois University, continue to include a question about criminal records on their applications. But a task force at the University of Illinois, at the request of a student group, is reviewing the school’s policy.

A better solution would be for the Legislature to pass a bill banning the box for all public universities, without exception.

Private institutions in Illinois might then follow.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.