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BU grad schools remove criminal history question from application

Boston University’s School of Law. In an effort to diversify its applicant pool, BU’s graduate schools are participating in a movement entitled “Ban the Box,” which removes the criminal history question from the schools’ applications. RACHEL SHARPLES/ DFP FILE

Applicants to Boston University’s graduate programs will now no longer need to disclose their criminal history.

BU’s graduate schools are entering a movement called “Ban the Box,” in the hopes of diversifying its applicant pool. The “Box” refers to the checkmarked square on the application form that asks applicants to mark whether they have any criminal history.

Daniel Kleinman, associate provost for graduate affairs, was a supporter of the movement for this change. He said recent research highlights two reasons for eliminating the box.

“One is that knowing this doesn’t help predict crime or reduce crime on campuses,” Kleinman said. “Secondly, it can have the effect of discriminating against people with criminal records.”

The Obama administration removed the criminal history question from federal job applications in 2016, and all employers in Massachusetts are already prohibited from inquiring about criminal history during the hiring process. 

During the Obama administration, the Department of Education also urged U.S. colleges and universities to consider removing the box in 2016.

2019 research from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers reported that 70 percent of four-year colleges require applicants to reveal their criminal history. Some states, including Maryland, Louisiana and Colorado, have mandated removal of the box at their public colleges while other states, like Massachusetts, retain the requirement.

The U.S. criminal justice system holds significantly more people of color than are represented in the country as a whole. Because of this racially disproportionate nature of incarceration, Kleinman said, factoring criminal history into admissions processes could play into discrimination.

Kleinman added that having a criminal record does not help colleges predict whether students will behave in a criminal way in college, as only 8.5 percent of students with a criminal history went on to engage in misconduct in college.

Applicants with past criminal records should have a chance to be educated, Kleinman said, especially as they have already served their sentence.

“That person has done his or her time in prison. Should we not allow that person to come to college?” Kleinman said. “One of the principles of this country and this culture is that people can redeem themselves.”   

Kleinman said the University had been working on such issues within its admissions process since before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that recently shed more light on the policy.

“We should always be working to reduce bias and prejudice and racism in our processes. Eliminating it should be our goal,” Kleinman said. “But this is an opportune time to introduce this policy.”

Shawn Hee, an incoming graduate student at the Metropolitan College, said he believes the change in policy will create an opportunity for students to gain fairer access to higher education.

“Everyone deserves a chance to start a new career and to get into an education field, regardless of their background or criminal history,” Hee said. “They do deserve a second chance to get a new start.”

Joseph Kim, an incoming School of Medicine student, wrote in a direct message that it’s typical for individuals to make mistakes in adolescence that cross legal lines, and that examples such as marijuana use or illegal downloading of copyrighted content are common.

“As a teenager, many are impulsive and will make mistakes that will affect their application process,” Kim wrote. “Although these cases are illegal, I believe that they are some of the non violent crimes that the admissions office should overlook in order to provide these students another chance in life.”

While he believes non-violent offenses like these should be removed from consideration in admissions processes, Kim wrote violent criminal histories should remain a required box on applications.

Removing the criminal background check altogether might allow schools to become unaware of certain serious crimes, like sexual assault, committed by applicants who may then contribute to an unsafe environment if admitted, Kim wrote. 

“There should be no elimination of criminal background checks, but [admissions offices] should do whatever they can to increase the diversity of the school, even if it means overlooking certain minor and nonviolent crimes,” Kim wrote. “These decisions, of course, should be made with the best judgement from admissions.”

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