The Obama administration has ordered the nation’s colleges and universities to stop asking applicants about criminal and school disciplinary history because it discriminates against minorities. Institutions are also being asked to offer those with criminal records special support services such as counseling, mentoring and legal aid once enrolled. The government’s official term for these perspective students is “justice-involved individuals” and the new directive aims to remove barriers to higher education for the overwhelmingly minority population that’s had encounters with the law or disciplinary issues through high school.
Instructions are outlined in a cumbersome document (Beyond the Box) issued by the U.S Department of Education (ED) this month. It says that “data show plainly that people of color are more likely to come in contact with the justice system due, in part, to punitive school disciplinary policies that disproportionately impact certain student groups and racial profiling.” Because education can be a powerful pathway to transition out of prison and into the workforce, it’s critical to ensure that admissions practices don’t disproportionately disadvantage justice involved individuals, the directive states. Colleges and universities should also refrain from inquiring about a student’s school disciplinary history—including past academic dishonesty—because that too discriminates against minorities. Civil rights data compiled by ED show “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students and often for the same types of infractions.”
Therefore colleges and universities should consider designing admissions policies that don’t include disciplinary history so they don’t have the “unjustified effect of discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion and disability,” the new ED guidelines state. Three out of four colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information and 89% of those institutions use the information to make admissions decisions, according to the order. That needs to change, according to the administration. A few years ago it warned public elementary and high schools to administer student discipline without discriminating on the bases of race, color or national origin because too many minority students—especially blacks—were getting suspended. The feds assert they issued the directive after reports of “racial disparities” in “exclusionary discipline policies” that created a “school to prison pipeline.”
Colleges and universities are to take it a step further by offering students with criminal histories special support services. This is to include targeted academic and career guidance as well as counseling, legal aid services, mentoring and coaching. “Institutions should recruit and train peer mentors with previous justice involvement to work with justice-involved students to ensure a smooth transition to postsecondary education and provide support and resources throughout their time at the college or university,” the new directive states. “These peer mentors could begin their work by acting as navigators who help acclimate justice-involved students to the educational institutions.” Perhaps colleges and universities should also start sending recruiters to jails across the country.
This is part of a broader effort by the administration to even the playing field for convicts. Earlier this month Judicial Watch reported that the president issued an order prohibiting federal agencies from asking job applicants about criminal history. The measure will ensure that hiring managers are making selection decisions based solely on qualifications, according to a White House announcement. “Early inquiries into an applicant’s criminal history may discourage motivated, well-qualified individuals who have served their time from applying for a federal job,” the announcement says, adding that “early inquiries could also lead to the disqualification of otherwise eligible candidates.”
Years ago the administration tried slamming the private sector with a ban on job applicant background checks by claiming that they discriminate against all minority candidates, not just ex-cons. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the nation’s workplace discrimination laws, wasted taxpayer dollars suing companies for checking criminal histories asserting that it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The apparent intent was to discourage other businesses from checking criminal histories out of fear of getting sued by the government, but it didn’t quite work out that way. A federal judge eventually blasted the EEOC’s claims, calling them laughable, distorted, cherry-picked, worthless and an egregious example of scientific dishonesty. Of interesting note is that the EEOC conducts criminal background checks as a condition of employment.