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Ban the box on campus

Governor Larry Hogan explains why he is vetoing the paid sick leave bill. (Michael Dresser, Baltimore Sun video)

The letter Gov. Larry Hogan sent to legislative leaders explaining his veto of a bill that would have limited the use of criminal history records in higher education admissions includes some scary suggestions that if it were enacted, it would force colleges and universities to admit rapists and other violent criminals. "When families send their children to college, they know they will be exposed to exciting new opportunities and challenges, but also to new dangers," the governor wrote. "In this, parents have an expectation that the school to which they entrust their child will do everything possible to keep its students safe."

But the legislation Mr. Hogan describes bears little resemblance to the bill lawmakers actually passed by overwhelming margins this year. It would not, in fact, prevent colleges from asking about criminal history and would not stop them from denying admittance to any student because of it. What it would do is to force Maryland's public colleges and universities and private ones that receive state aid to consider an applicant's merits first — grades, test scores and so on — and then to make a thoughtful decision about whether his or her criminal history is severe enough to present a real barrier to admission. The bill prohibits the arbitrary exclusion of students because of a criminal history, not the use of criminal records in the admittance process in general.

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The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Baltimore's Joan Carter Conway and in the House by Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Erek L. Barron of Prince George's County, is part of a burgeoning national movement to extend the "ban the box" idea that has taken hold in employment applications into the realm of college admissions. Last year, then-U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. issued a letter and guidance to colleges and universities urging such an action on the grounds that the rise in incarceration in recent decades has left a large number of Americans — and particularly a large number of minorities — with criminal records. Excluding them from higher education limits not only their prospects but those of the nation as a whole, he wrote. The Department of Education's research on the matter found tremendous variance among colleges about how and when they ask about criminal justice involvement, with questions often vaguely worded to lump together minor offenses and serious ones, and processes for using that information inconsistent and unclear.

The Maryland bill was initially opposed by a variety of public and private higher education institutions in the state on some reasonable grounds. For one, many rely on the Common Application (a form used by 700 college and universities across the nation), and although that organization modified its question about criminal history in response to the DOE guidance, it didn't eliminate it altogether. The first version of the bill was also too restrictive about whether, when and how criminal information could be collected and used.

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After an extensive series of amendments, most of those concerns were addressed. The bill allows for use of the Common Application, provided institutions post a policy on their websites stating that criminal convictions do not automatically disqualify applicants. It also specifies that criminal records can be used in admissions decisions or decisions about whether an applicant would be suitable for certain campus activities, such as living in a dorm. It encourages institutions to develop processes that consider the age of the applicant at the time of his or her offense, the nature of the crime, the passage of time and evidence of rehabilitation.

The Maryland Association of Independent Colleges and Universities supported the bill as amended. The University System of Maryland did not, although the final version mirrors in key respects what representatives of the University of Maryland and UMBC testified are their current practices. Both said they make individual assessments of applicants with criminal history and seek to provide them support and supervision as warranted.

The question, though, is how many people don't even bother filling out applications once they see the criminal background question. In its guidance to colleges, the Department of Education cited a study showing that people with felony convictions on their records who begin applications to State University of New York schools stop before completion at more than triple the overall rate. Many Maryland schools may already have policies in place that reflect the best practices to combine opportunities for second chances with appropriate safeguards for campus safety. But unless that fact is well publicized, many people who could benefit from it won't bother to apply. For that reason, we hope legislators will override Governor Hogan's veto of Senate Bill 543/House Bill 694 when they return to Annapolis in January.

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