U creates new application questions

by Brian Edwards

When Robert Stewart was filling out his application to the University of Minnesota in 2009, the doctoral student in sociology hesitated when he got to a question asking about his criminal record.
He has a felony on his record, something that’s given him pause when applying to jobs and schools. 
To encourage students like Stewart to apply for admission, the University plans to change questions on its application about criminal history starting fall 2016.
The move comes after state advocacy groups showed support for reform and the Student Senate passed a resolution in March saying the question should be removed.
Rachelle Hernandez, director of admissions and associate vice provost of enrollment management, said the University is looking to foster an environment that is welcoming for all students, adding that it hasn’t changed its application questions since their introduction in 2008.
As part of the changes, applicants’ criminal records will be revealed to the admissions committee only once they’ve been deemed academically admissible, 
she said.
“We are doing this to make sure that there is a consistent framework with each student,” she said.
Students with felonies can be admitted, though the admissions committee considers how recent the felony is and the chance it’ll be repeated, Hernandez said.
The change was made after discussions with groups like the Office of the General Counsel, the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity and the University’s police department, she said.
Eventually, Stewart decided not to apply at all, he said, but did so in the end only because a friend urged him to finish the application.
Now a member of the University’s Student Senate, Stewart worked to help craft the group’s resolution to “‘ban the box’ on undergraduate application forms,” which echoes a similarly named law Gov. Mark Dayton signed in 2014 that requires private employers to wait until later in the hiring process — like during an interview — to screen for felonies.
The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, a group that advocates for people with criminal histories, sent a letter to the University last month explaining that asking about criminal history likely deters potential students from applying.
MSCC founder Sarah Walker said the University’s reluctance to get rid of criminal history questions, despite a report from the Center for Community Alternatives stating that criminal history screening has no effect on campus safety, tarnished the University’s status as a research institution.
Stewart said he often wonders how many potential students face the challenges he did.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t finish the application, so how many people were in the same situation but didn’t finish it?” he said.