Prospective undergraduate students applying to the University of Illinois’ three campuses won’t be asked about their criminal histories until after they’ve been admitted.
The policy change is in response to a statewide and national movement urging colleges and universities to “ban the box” that asks about criminal convictions from their applications. Advocates say the question can discourage people with convictions from applying. Additionally, due to the disproportionate number of people of color with felony convictions, advocates argue the question has a greater impact on marginalized applicants.
The nonprofit group behind the Common Application, which is used by more than 800 institutions — including the University of Illinois at Chicago — announced that it would drop the question from its application last year. In Illinois, state lawmakers tried for several years to ban the question from private and public college and university applications through proposed legislation. House lawmakers rejected the latest iteration of the bill earlier this year due to concerns about student safety.
Barbara Wilson, vice-president of academic affairs for the University of Illinois system, said the admissions policy change is “a compromise, but it’s a compromise in the right direction.”
Wilson said the university began studying the issue roughly two years ago after student activists and lawmakers told university officials that such questions could deter people with criminal records from applying. The Center for Community Alternatives found in a 2015 study that of the nearly 3,000 people with felony convictions who began applications to the State University of New York, about two-thirds dropped out of the process — in part because of having to provide information about their convictions.
“It would be inaccurate to say that we’ve gotten rid of the questions,” Wilson said. “We’ve really moved them and they’re no longer part of the front end of the application process. But they are still asked of all provisionally admitted students.”
Once a student is provisionally admitted to one of the campuses, they still need to submit information like their final transcript to ensure their spot. That list of to-do items will also include answering a question that asks whether the student has any pending or prior convictions. If they do, Wilson said a committee that does not include admissions personnel will review the student’s record to assess whether they pose a threat to campus safety. If the committee decides the student poses minimal risk, Wilson said the admissions process continues.
“If there is a concern about the risk, then the student will be notified. We may provide things like an online degree or other kinds of options that the student might have to pursue a degree,” Wilson said. The university policy also provides for an appeal process if conditional admissions is rescinded due to a student’s criminal history.
The goal, Wilson said, is “to reduce any chilling effect that might occur. We want all kinds of students to apply to our universities.”
But Chris Miner doesn’t think moving the question will solve the problem. Miner, a U of I graduate, said he almost didn’t apply to the university after he saw the question asking about his criminal history. Miner has felony record for theft, and he served time in prison following a probation violation.
Miner said the policy change is a “baby step” in the right direction, but “I don’t know that it’s going to reduce the anxiety. Now it’s just extending it. So if you get accepted, you know it’s coming.” Like Miner, Will Vavrin is also unsatisfied with the policy change.
Vavrin, a UIC graduate, is the alumni coordinator and founder of Yes Apply, a student group that advocates for the removal of the criminal history question. He said asking the question at the back end of the application process is “still invasive and humiliating.”
“The question, whether on the admissions, whether on the intent to enroll section of the application, still has a discouraging factor that makes people feel unwelcome to apply to the university,” Vavrin said.
But Wilson said the university also has a duty to keep campuses safe.
“We looked across the country at what other universities were doing, and we couldn’t find anything that felt right,” she said. “So what we’ve designed is a model that we don’t see anywhere else. And we do think it is a unique and appropriate process and that it balances risks on all sides.”
A report published in 2016 by the federal Department of Education found no conclusive evidence to suggest that asking about an individual’s criminal history during the admissions process decreases campus crime.
Wilson also noted that university officials estimate only about 1% of applicants who check the box will actually have their admission rescinded as a result.
In 2017, 240 applicants to the University of Illinois’ three campuses indicated they had a criminal record; 82 were admitted and 11 were rejected due to their criminal histories, according to university data.
Miner said the university should go further to encourage and welcome prospective students with criminal records.
“I’d really like to see an actual office or at least a couple people dedicated to assisting people with felony convictions get into the school,” he said. “Eventually, I would like to see the box completely banned.”
The change is reflected in the fall 2020 undergraduate application, and was in effect for some transfer students who applied for the upcoming spring 2020 semester, according to university officials.