University nixes felony question on student applications

Starting next fall, those who apply to the University of Minnesota won’t have to disclose felony convictions or charges.

by David Clarey

Questions about past felony convictions or pending criminal charges will be removed from the University of Minnesota’s admission application next year.

While the fall 2017 application won’t include the felony question, applicants will still be required to disclose whether they have a history of academic dishonesty or sexual offenses.

“The decision was made that those individuals did not represent a threat to our campus,” said Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

A question asking prospective students to report if they’ve been found legally responsible for a sexual offense or if they have sexual offense charges pending against them, will remain on the application, McMaster said.

“As it stands right now, we feel that if someone has been convicted of a sexual offense, we need to know,” he said.

Last year, the University decided to remove questions regarding misdemeanors and hide the applicant’s answer to the felony question during admission decisions.

However, the national “Common App” program — which the University has recently decided to use — asks questions about applicants’ criminal history.

McMaster said the University will not be accept data from the felony question on the Common App.

The University will continue asking about felonies and misdemeanors on campus housing applications, however, he said.

“It’s one thing to admit a student to the University. It’s another thing to have a student in housing with a lot of 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds. That said, there are relatively few who check that box who are [freshmen],” McMaster said.

Nationally, other colleges are “banning the box,” such as the state university system in New York, which removed the felony question at the beginning of this semester.

Last year, sociology graduate student and “Ban the Box” advocate Robert Stewart pushed for the change to the University’s application in response to his continued research on the subject.

He said applicants coming out of the criminal justice system are disproportionately people of color.

“The disparities that exist in the criminal justice system are going to directly affect who has to answer ‘yes’ to these questions,” Stewart said.

McMaster said after reviewing data about biases surrounding the question, particularly its effect on African-American males, University officials decided to remove the question for good.

University Student Senate Chair Trish Palermo said the Senate passed a resolution in support of the question’s removal a year ago, which was leveraged by Stewart’s research on the topic.

She said there was little division in the Senate on whether to get rid of the question.

“While there is very little proof that having this question does anything to make the campus any safer, there is proof it deters students from applying,” Palermo said.

McMaster said this data helped convince the University to make the changes, citing a “dampening effect” on African-American males’ decisions to apply.