NYU Changes Its Criminal History Admissions Question

New York University will publicly announce on Monday, August 1st that it is changing the question on its application regarding applicants’ criminal histories. Instead of asking broadly whether applicants have been convicted of a crime, it will ask whether applicants, in the last seven years and after the age of 14, have “ever been convicted at trial, or pled guilty to, a criminal offense involving violence?” While this reform will improve access to higher education for a small portion of applicants, it fails to make higher education accessible for a large portion of marginalized communities impacted by the criminal punishment system.

We must call out the false binary between so-called violent crimes and non-violent crimes. Firstly, crimes are lumped together in either the “violent” or “non-violent” categories, without much acknowledgment for gradients, how events are misconstrued, and how hints or suggestions of violence are rearticulated and condemned as real acts of violence. The police and the injustice system are more likely to arrest and charge people of color for violent crimes than white folks.

Perpetuating the bias in our unjust, abusive and racist criminal punishment system will not make us safer. By doing so, we are continuing to exclude and enact violence on poor communities and communities of color. We need to be putting our resources into healing and improving our communities, not in further deliberating on how our communities are evaluated and excluded from resources.

Regardless of whether a crime was deemed violent or not by the punishment system, everyone has the right to access an education and the opportunities that come along with it. Institutions, such as universities or colleges, should not violate any person’s human rights or perpetuate punishment for time already served.

Alison Reba, a current NYU student and IEC organizer further explained that crimes involving violence are often motivated by poverty and the need for survival. “By calling out violent crimes specifically on the application, NYU is perpetuating the stigma we hold against people who have engaged in violence.” In order to prevent violence in our communities, we need to create opportunities for community members to remove themselves from cycles of poverty. We have this assumption that people who commit violent crimes are somehow inherently or biologically wired to be violent and criminal, and this is just completely untrue. By calling out violent crimes specifically on the application, NYU is perpetuating the stigma we hold against people who have engaged in violence.

It should be noted that this reform will improve access to higher education for those who have been convicted of non-violent drug crimes. This constitutes only a portion of people impacted by mass incarceration, but fails to make higher education accessible for a large portion of those impacted by the criminal punishment system who are most marginalized. Those who this reform will impact are more likely to be white, and middle- or upper- class. In this way, NYU’s reform perpetuates the racism and classism inherent to the criminal punishment system.

NYU’s policy reform requires that applicants check THE BOX even if their convictions happened at the age of 15 or 16. Data has clearly shown that racial and socio-economic disparities are rampant in youth policing and sentencing. This policy continues the school-to-prison pipeline by barring young black and brown people from higher education.

Research from the Center for Community Alternatives has shown that simply the existence of criminal history questions on college applications deters formerly incarcerated people from applying. This attrition rate, often called the “chilling effect,” is one of the main reasons why IEC has called for a complete abolition of criminal history questions. NYU’s recent reform does not remove the criminal history question from its admissions process. NYU also uses the Common Application — the college application that is used almost exclusively throughout the country — which has not removed criminal history questions for applicants. In continuing to purchase the Common Application, and retaining criminal history questions on its own application, NYU fails to address the problem of the chilling effect.

NYU’s change to its application follows policy recommendations released from the US Department of Education earlier this year. However, IEC has called for NYU to completely remove any questions regarding applicant’s’ criminal histories since 2013.

The Incarceration to Education Coalition recognizes the benefit that NYU’s new reform will have on a portion of applicants. However, IEC urges the administration and the Common Application at large to make college accessible for all by completely abolishing criminal history questions from its application.