Nearly three out of four colleges ask applicants a variation of the question most dreaded by those who have been on the wrong side of the law: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
Some colleges are only concerned with violent felonies, others with misdemeanors or even high-school suspensions. And what they do with that information, ostensibly gathered only to keep their campuses safe, varies widely.
Relatively few reject students outright on the basis of criminal convictions, but many require those applicants to jump through so many hoops, gathering letters from probation officers and corrections officials, waiting additional months for committee deliberations, that the students give up.
Many of the colleges that now pore over applicants’ rap sheets began doing so in response to violent crimes by students, including the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Colleges are also acutely aware today of their responsibilities in preventing sexual assaults, a factor that could cause more to turn away applicants with histories of sex crimes. Such policies, some campus officials argue, could help protect students from harm and colleges from lawsuits.
But there is no evidence that people with criminal histories are any more likely to commit crimes on campus, or that any of the recent campus shootings, including those at Virginia Tech, were by people with criminal histories, says Robert A. Stewart, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who is conducting a nationwide study of such screenings.
After examining the applications of about 1,400 baccalaureate colleges in the United States, Mr. Stewart found that about 70 percent inquired about students’ criminal records. About 58 percent of the public colleges and 78 percent of the private colleges did so.
Answering yes rarely means automatic rejection, but the scrutiny that usually follows is enough to make some applicants feel unwelcome, says Alan Rosenthal, co-director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
"We know education reduces recidivism," he says. "So if you close your doors, thinking you’re keeping your campus safe, you’re undermining the safety of your communities."
Mr. Stewart’s finding that 70 percent of colleges now screen for criminal histories is an increase from the roughly 60 percent that Mr. Rosenthal’s center found in a 2010 survey.
The more recent survey shows how colleges continue to struggle to balance concerns about safety and fairness.
The University of Washington at Seattle asks all prospective undergraduates whether they’ve ever been convicted of a violent felony or registered as a sex offender. The policy was started in 2013, one year after the university sent out a campuswide email saying that two men who had been convicted of sex crimes against children were taking classes there, but that they were being monitored.
A campus spokesman, Norman G. Arkans, said at the time that the university didn’t feel it could deny the men an education after they had served their time.
"I can tell you we believe in the redemptive power of education," Mr. Arkans said last week.
While Washington is looking specifically for histories of violent crimes, the Common Application, which is used by more than 500 American colleges, casts a broader net, inquiring about convictions for any felonies or misdemeanors, as well as academic or behavioral misconduct at any school or college.
Coastal Carolina University dives deep, with nine "community standards questions" that students must answer before they can be considered for admission. Asking questions like whether someone has been pardoned or arrested without a conviction "supports the university’s goal of maintaining a safe learning community," the application states.
Conversely, Western Connecticut State University’s antidiscrimination statement specifies "prior conviction of a crime" as a factor that can’t be used to reject someone.
Compiling those examples for his doctoral dissertation, Mr. Stewart reflected on his own struggles. By the time he enrolled at Minnesota, he was a college dropout in his late 20s with a felony drug conviction and a desire to turn his life around.
He could do that as well as help others, he figured, by enrolling in the university’s program in the sociology of law, crime, and deviance. But first he had to convince the admissions committee.
"I filled out the entire application, then I ran across the question: Have I ever been convicted of a crime," Mr. Stewart says. "I hit the save button, closed the browser, and walked away." There was no way they’d let him in, he figured.
But then, he says, "it struck me that this is really counterproductive." Blocking ex-convicts hurts diversity efforts, he argues, because they are disproportionately poor and members of minority groups. What’s more, "it’s potentially limiting people who could benefit the most from higher education."
A friend persuaded him to go back and finish the application. After a four-month review process, he was finally admitted, and in 2012 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude.
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.