In New York, a Prison Record Is a Barrier to College

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

"We can create more thoughtful and inclusive admissions policies," says Ronald Day, who attended college after serving time in prison. He is now associate vice president of the Fortune Society, an advocate group for ex-convicts.
March 02, 2015

Adrien Cadwallader sat with a half-dozen campus officials and nervously confessed the low points of his troubled history: the 20 arrests and the drug addiction, followed by diagnoses of bipolar disorder and PTSD.

He fought tears as he tried to explain why he, a 33-year-old former cocaine dealer with violent impulses, deserved to sit in a college classroom.

"I told them how difficult it is to live with the guilt for the things that I have done," says Mr. Cadwallader, recounting his admissions interview at the State University of New York at New Paltz, a working-class town in the middle of horse country, about 80 miles north of Manhattan.

He had taken classes while behind bars in the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and hoped upon his release that a college degree would get him off the path that had taken him in and out of prisons for eight years.

When he checked the box on the New Paltz application owning up to his felony record, the demands began. The university wanted letters from the prison psychologist, the prison superintendent, and his parole officer, and it wanted his full criminal record.

Mr. Cadwallader replied that Mt. McGregor did not have a psychologist and that he had never interacted with the superintendent. He submitted letters from his current psychologist, psychiatrist, and parole officer, and braced for the screening committee. There, he says, he was grilled about his record—including arrests for misdemeanors and for charges that had been dismissed.

"They kept asking me about my rap sheet," he says. "It doesn’t tell my full story. Those things were done by a person that is no longer me. I felt like I was being set up to fail."

New Paltz turned him down, as did nearby Dutchess Community College. New Paltz explained only that the admission process "is very competitive."

Mr. Cadwallader has abandoned his college aspirations and is living on welfare.

Each year about 2,900 SUNY applicants check a box to indicate that they have been convicted of a felony. Most of them find the admission hurdles for ex-felons so daunting that they give up and withdraw from the process.

About three out of five applicants with felony records drop out between application and admission, according to a forthcoming analysis of state records by the Center for Community Alternatives, which lobbies for alternatives to incarceration. Among applicants without criminal records, only about one in five drops out of the admissions process, the report says.

‘One Big Mess’

Concerns about overpopulated prisons and high rates of recidivism have focused new attention on barriers that keep former inmates from re-entering society.

A campaign to "ban the box," the entry on job applications that denotes a criminal record, has won the support of major employers, including Target and Wal-Mart. Fourteen states and nearly 100 cities and counties now place some restrictions on employers’ asking about criminal background on job applications.

Nearly three out of four colleges ask applicants a variation of a question about whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.

"If we are sincere about criminal-justice reform, economic independence, creating pathways out of poverty, and reducing our reliance on incarceration, then the college doors should be open to all," says Ronald Day, an ex-felon who succeeded in gaining admission to SUNY’s Empire State College.

He likened the admissions process to running a gantlet. After graduating, he applied for a Ph.D. program on another SUNY campus but, faced with a repeat round of interrogation, withdrew his application. He enrolled instead in a program at the City University of New York, which does not routinely ask applicants about their criminal pasts.

"We can create more thoughtful and inclusive admissions policies, but we need to start by thinking outside the box," he says.

Campuses in New York’s state system, which enrolls about 460,000 full-time students, are required by SUNY policy to ask about felony convictions, but the colleges vary widely in their treatment of ex-felons.

After a prospective student checks the criminal-history box, officials send the person a letter or an email asking for additional information. The researchers at the Center for Community Alternatives counted a total of 38 documents that the colleges have required felons to provide, including documents that are protected by privacy laws, documents that can be all but impossible to obtain, and documents that, in some cases, do not exist.

SUNY policy states that only the felony convictions of applicants should be considered, but some colleges probe outside the boundaries. Erie Community College, for example, requires applicants to provide a "letter of discharge," on court letterhead, to explain the outcome of arrests that did not lead to convictions. Some campuses demand that criminal histories be sent directly from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, although that agency releases records only to the offenders.

All SUNY campuses require applicants who have checked the box to have a review committee scrutinize their submitted documents. That committee often interviews the applicants as well. The panel may include campus law-enforcement officials and mental-health specialists in addition to admissions officials.

"Each of the campuses are doing what they want," says Alan Rosenthal, co-director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives and lead author of the report on SUNY practices. "It’s one big mess."

Dona Bulluck, an associate counsel for SUNY, says campuses have been told that the chair of the screening committee should redact certain information, such as juvenile records, before sharing documents with panel members. "If individuals encounter a problem with a particular campus, unless we are made aware of the issue, we can’t address it," she says.

Another SUNY official, Casey Vattimo, director of public relations, says via email that the university system would encourage admissions personnel on all campuses to attend annual training on the policies for handling applications from ex-offenders.

Paul Berger, deputy commissioner of the SUNY police force, says the screening is "a way to balance the educational access of ex-offenders with campus safety." It is also, he says, a way to weed out applicants who are not equipped to confront the complexities of campus environments.

"College campuses are not a therapeutic environment," he says. "There is a lot of recreational drug use. There are other activities that happen on college campuses. And the question we would have: Is this person going to be successful in this environment? Or will they be tempted into failure in this environment?"

Facing Obstacles

By comparison, CUNY, with more than 269,000 degree-seeking students, does not routinely ask applicants about their criminal pasts. The system does have a policy authorizing an individual campus "to deny admission to students who may pose a risk to the college." A CUNY spokesman said it wants all students, even former criminals, to have access to a higher education.

Applicants who have been convicted of sex crimes are the most likely to face close scrutiny at CUNY and elsewhere. Federal law requires that law-enforcement agencies track the whereabouts of sex offenders enrolled in colleges. CUNY is notified by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services if one of its students is in the state’s sex-offender database.

The vetting process for potential students at some of New York’s private colleges can be even more stringent than in the public system, according to Mr. Stewart’s research.

Last year New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, pressured three private institutions—St. John’s University, Dowling College, and Five Towns College—to revamp their admissions processes. He criticized the colleges in October for inquiring about arrests that did not lead to convictions.

The attorney general’s office declined to be discuss its policy on the record, but it issued a statement saying that its Civil Rights Bureau "has launched a broad initiative to combat barriers to re-entry faced by individuals with prior contact with the criminal-justice system." The statement continued, "The office will continue to ensure that every New Yorker has the chance to earn a living and lead a productive life after paying a debt to society."

Alexandra Cox, an assistant professor of sociology at New Paltz, guides incarcerated teenagers through the college-application process and works as an advocate for students who have arrest records and who enroll.

"I feel very committed to the idea that we aren’t judged by the worst mistake that we ever made," she says.

Applicants who press through the admissions process see a reward in the opportunity to pursue an advanced education.

Michael Manos, who spent more than 16 years in prison for being an accessory to kidnapping and grand larceny, is now, at age 51, a first-year student at Dutchess Community College.

He almost dropped out of the college’s admissions process, he says, angry that he had to show officials his criminal record and meet with a felony review committee. Now he wants to become a paralegal.

"I look at this as my new life," Mr. Manos says. "I feel that God has blessed me and has given me a new reason to be here."

"If you just get past the rough part," he adds, "there’s a massive payoff."

Reported in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal-justice system. You can sign-up for its newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.