Through Fair Chance in Higher Education Initiative, Lawyers’ Committee Seeks to Address Discriminatory Inquiries Included on Standardized College Application Form Utilized by More than 600 Institutions Around the U.S.


WASHINGTON, D.C. 
– Today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) called for The Common Application, Inc., a nonprofit organization that issues a standardized college application form used by more than 600 colleges across the country, to immediately terminate use of questions concerning college applicants’ educational disciplinary histories, criminal records, and juvenile justice backgrounds. The Lawyers’ Committee’s focus on The Common Application represents the next phase of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Chance in Higher Education Initiative, which was launched last month to address the exclusion or disparate treatment of African American and other minority students who are disproportionately subject to some form of involvement with the criminal justice system.

The Lawyers’ Committee’s investigation into The Common Application revealed that applicants are required to provide information about all disciplinary violations during high school and convictions for any crime, including misdemeanors and juvenile adjudications. Based on its review, The Common Application would require disclosure of any disciplinary violation in high school including a visit to the dean’s office for turning in a late assignment; disclosure of juvenile adjudications that may be sealed pursuant to state law requirements; and disclosure of convictions for minor offenses. The Lawyers’ Committee’s investigation reveals that these questions may have a discriminatory effect on black and other minority applicants because of the racially disparate treatment that permeates the criminal justice system and the use of exclusionary discipline tactics in schools.

“No student should be denied a fair chance to compete for a seat in the classroom based on a high school suspension or contact with the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “The Common Application should take immediate action to strike these discriminatory inquiries from its standardized forms, to help schools across our nation provide a fair chance to all people seeking access to educational opportunity.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funding, including most colleges and universities, from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. Because this includes the obligation to avoid policies and practices which have a racially disparate impact on students of color, The Common Application’s use of questions regarding applicants’ criminal and disciplinary histories may expose its member institutions to the risk of losing federal funding

Roughly 100 million Americans have some form of criminal record. Black youth make up 35 percent of juveniles arrested, despite amounting for only 17 percent of their age group. The same disparities plague school disciplinary actions: Since the 1970s, the racial gap in suspension rates has steadily grown wider so that today black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended than white students.

“The Common Application has an unjustified impact on minority applicants, some of whom are trying to rebuild their lives,” said Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “In many cases, applicants don’t even bother to submit their applications once they learn that they must disclose past misconduct that has little or nothing to do with who they are now and the goals they are trying to achieve.”

During the first phase of the initiative, the Lawyers’ Committee issued a Letter of Request seeking information from 17 colleges and universities regarding their use of broad application questions as to arrest history, sealed or expunged juvenile records, and/or pardoned or expunged records.

The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to promoting fair and educationally sound policies and addressing barriers faced by people with criminal backgrounds. The Fair Chance in Higher Education Initiative addresses the unfair difficulties faced by applicants to colleges and universities throughout the country due to backgrounds in the criminal justice system.

Individuals who believe that they have been denied or discouraged from pursuing educational opportunities at colleges and universities because of inquiries into stops, arrests and detentions in the admissions process can contact [email protected].

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