May 3, 2016

Cornellians Discuss ‘Banning The Box’ on College Admissions Applications

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The Cornell community is joining the statewide conversation about ‘banning the box’ issue on college admission applications, following the University’s recent decision to remove questions of criminal history from preliminary job applications beginning July 1.

University Assembly employee ranking member Ulysses Smith ’14 said he hopes admissions is considering the ‘ban the box’ initiative in addition to initiatives pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity on applications.

“We need to begin to ask some value questions,” Smith said. “Is there value in asking a prospective student their criminal history? Is there value in asking questions of sexual orientation and gender identity? How do we use that information? I think there is demonstrated value in the latter, but we should have further discussions about the former.”

This recent focus on ‘ban the box’ at Cornell is only part of a state and nation-wide movement to remove criminal history checkboxes from college applications.

Six percent of schools that responded to surveys reported that their admissions process is identical for applicants with and without a criminal record, according to the Center for Community Alternatives.

The Fair Access to Education Act is proceeding through the New York State Legislature to make criminal history checkboxes illegal. Currently in committee, it is “an act to amend the correction law and the executive law, in relation to college admission for persons previously convicted of one or more criminal offenses,” according to the legislation.

At the forefront of the movement is the Education from the Inside Out Coalition — a national nonpartisan organization “working to remove barriers to higher education facing students while they are in prison and once they come home,” according to the EIO Coalition website.

The EIO coalition stressed that ‘the box’ does not make college campuses any safer but actually worsens racial and ethnic disparities.

The legislation would allow universities to only inquire about conviction history “once admission has been granted to a student, and only for programming and housing purposes and not to deny a student admission,” according to Mel Gagarin of EIO.

Gagarin said ‘the box’ not only works against the belief that access to higher education is a human right but also contradicts the verdict of Supreme Court case, Brown v. The Board of Education.

“People of color are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system … and then are faced with the box,” Gagarin said. “The spirit of Brown v. Board was to make education accessible to everybody and ‘the box’ mathematically is disproportionately affecting folks of color from being able to obtain higher education.”

Gagarin added that asking this question has nothing to do with educational background or whether an individual is qualified to obtain a higher education.

“What they’re asking from these students is really not information that they should be looking at because it’s really only between the client and their attorney,” Gagarin said. “They’re looking at stuff that’s been adjudicated, juvenile convictions that have been sealed and things from the past that really have no relevance to their applying to school.”

Gagarin said ‘the box’ emerged in the 1990s “almost as sort of a solution in search of a problem.”

“Campuses felt like they needed to do something to have an appearance of making their campuses appear safer,” Gagarin said. “Unfortunately, the empirical evidence that exists doesn’t show a correlation between asking the question and actually improving campus safety.”

Gabriel Kaufman ’18, U.A. undergraduate representative, prefaced his argument by pointing out that Cornell fosters a community that honors both the Code of Academic Integrity and the Campus Code of Conduct. He also called Cornell a highly selective and renowned institution — the Class of 2020 received a record 44,966 applications with a target of 3,275 fall freshmen, according to the University.

With this mind, Kaufman said the University must consider the reasons to accept a student in addition to the reasons to decline an applicant.

“With college admissions as competitive as it is, I believe preference should be given to those who work hard and play by the rules and that means signaling to the University that an applicant has in fact been playing by the rules,” Kaufman said.

The University did not respond to requests for a comment on this issue.