“Ban the box” movement takes aim at college applications

And this time it's got bipartisan support

There's a new bipartisan bill that would ban Colorado's public colleges and universities from asking applicants about their criminal records. (Photo by Jason Bache / Flickr)

Majid Mohammad knows first-hand what a criminal record can do to your self-esteem.

Mohammed, who served seven years behind bars for robbery, wanted to go to the University of Colorado-Boulder to study engineering. He had filled out most of the lengthy application when he came to the question about past felonies.

“I got through the whole thing and then I got to the question,” said Mohammad, now 24, “and I stopped because I thought it was an automatic barrier to me being accepted.”

It’s not. People who admit to having a criminal record on college applications are not automatically screened out by admissions offices. But the problem is that people like Mohammad are all too often removing themselves from contention: one State University of New York study found that about two-thirds of people with previous felony convictions dropped out of college application processes after being asked about their records.

“It’s not like you’re applying and getting denied, but … people are scared to apply,” said Mohammad, who later did apply and was admitted at the Colorado School of Mines.

That same fear exists for job applicants, research shows, and it inspired the “ban the box” movement, which seeks to prohibit public- and private-sector employers from asking prospective hirees to check little boxes on initial job applications to indicate whether they have criminal histories. Colorado could this year become the 12th state to adopt such a prohibition.

But the movement is no longer just about employment.

There’s an emerging consensus that people with criminal records — that includes 1.8 million Coloradans and more than a third of U.S. adults, according to the Department of Justice — shouldn’t have to reveal their arrest or conviction histories when applying to public higher education institutions.

A bill to codify that sentiment in law is pending in the Colorado legislature, introduced last week in the Senate by Denver Democrat Robert Rodriguez and his Republican co-sponsor, Jack Tate.

“When it comes to second chances,” said Tate, of Centennial, “I think the government should be wanting to make sure those who want to be better for themselves, seize personal responsibility and pursue education — meaning, make their lives better — should be incentivized to do that.”

The Rodriguez/Tate bill would prohibit the University of Colorado and Colorado State University systems, as well as all other public higher-ed institutions in the state, from inquiring about their applicants’ criminal histories prior to admission. They’d still be able to inquire about pending criminal cases, but the bill seeks to leave the past in the past.

It’s similar to the “ban the box”-for-employment bill that Reps. Leslie Herod and Jovan Melton, both Democrats, are running a bill this session.

But that bill only has a shot at becoming law this year because Democrats control the state legislature and the governorship. Republicans generally oppose banning the box on job applications, because, they say, the government shouldn’t be allowed to tell employers how to screen applicants.

The day a “ban the box” bill died in 2016, Republican state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs summed up the opposition: “For the government to go out and tell private employers what to do violates the role of what the government is. I think there are many other things we should be working on. But the government telling private employers what they can and can’t do is not the solution.”

There’s a key difference, however, between banning the box on job and college applications, Tate and Rodriguez agree. That’s why their bill, which appears to have little (if any) organized opposition, features bipartisan sponsorship — the Colorado branch of Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity is also supporting it, as are progressive criminal justice reform organizations — while the Herod/Melton one is advancing more because of Democratic control at the Capitol.

“The difference is that higher education is a public good,” Tate said. “That’s different than a private business. … The state should not be in the role of denying access for those who want to do better for themselves. So there’s a big distinction versus a private entity, which has a different role in society than the government.”

The U.S. Department of Education in 2016 issued a series of recommendations regarding box-banning on college applications.  The Common App — a college application students can fill out and use in applying to more than 700 higher-ed institutions — gave the movement a major boost last year when it announced last year it would stop asking people about criminal records.

Crucially, the Department of Education found, “colleges and universities that admit students with a criminal justice history have no greater crime than those that do not.”

Explaining his support for the bill in Colorado, Rodriguez cited the evidence that admitting people with criminal records doesn’t increase crime rates on campus, and an Emory University study that found one’s likelihood to recidivate drops about 6 percent with a bachelor’s degree. The drop-off gets much steeper with more advanced degrees.

“It’s like people are carrying a scarlet letter,” he said. “They have something they have to pay for for the rest of their lives. When can you get past that?”


  1. I’m so happy to see both of these bills before the Legislature this year. Kudos to Representatives Herod and Melton for carrying the Chance to Compete bill. Obtaining employment is a necessity for almost everyone leaving incarceration, and not having to check the box about a criminal history removes this unnecessary barrier. As a former teacher, I’m thrilled to see the bill introduced by Senators Rodriguez and Tate that also eliminates another re-entry barrier. We need to reintegrate people with a criminal history into our communities, not relegate them to the sidelines of opportunity.

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