Only 4 percent of colleges conduct criminal background checks on students, and 36 percent of schools don't even require self-disclosure of crimes, according to a new survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. In contrast, 26 percent of admissions offices use search engines to research applicants, and 21 percent use social networking sites, a 2007 study found.
Admissions officers claim they "would consider anything that would cause us to doubt a student's character," as one Ivy League admissions dean recently told The Wall Street Journal. But these surveys suggest that colleges care more about what an applicant has posted online than whether he or she has committed a crime.
If that's true, schools need to re-evaluate their priorities for screening students. Someone who's paying $100,000-plus for an education deserves to be in an environment that takes at least the same safety precautions as the average workplace (where 92 percent of employers conduct criminal checks on job applicants).
As it stands today, students with criminal records are sitting in classrooms nationwide.
A 2009 study by MyBackgroundCheck.com, a leading supplier of criminal background checks for college students, found that approximately one out of every 29 students had a previous criminal record, not including juvenile offenses. Of those, about 10 percent had sexual abuse or assault convictions. Surely, parents want to know if a convicted rapist is living in their daughter's dorm.
And too many colleges are reactive, not proactive. The University of North Carolina didn't require its 16 campuses to conduct criminal checks on students until after the murder of a female student by a classmate with a long record of violence against women. The University of Virginia announced in May that it will perform background checks on all of its students following a similar tragedy. Harvard University rescinded an offer of admission after receiving an anonymous tip that the applicant killed her mother and omitted it from her application.
And most schools that do consider an applicant's criminal history often leave decisions to the whim of an admissions representative. In fact, less than half of the colleges that do collect and use criminal justice information have written policies in place, and only 40 percent train staff on how to interpret such information, the admissions officers survey found.
True, conducting criminal checks on students isn't without controversy. Records for crimes committed before age 18 are sealed in several states. Many criminals are never caught. Some law-abiding applicants will develop into criminals later. Studies also show that chronic racial disparities exist in our justice system.
Despite these concerns, colleges should at a minimum discuss this issue with students and develop a policy on whether criminal checks should be required and how information gathered should be used.
"Let's identify where we have questions, where there may be problems or slippery slopes, but also where we want to develop answers or policies," said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security On Campus, a nonprofit campus security organization. "But not having that discussion at all is a disservice to students' safety."
Among the steps that need to be taken:
- Schools should to do more than just ask questions about a prospective student's criminal history on applications. Following up with a criminal check is essential. Otherwise, students who are honest about their criminal past may get punished, but those who are not may get rewarded for lying about it.
- Students should undergo annual checks while enrolled, because colleges often aren't told about crimes their students commit.
- Administrators who make enrollment decisions must be trained to distinguish between students whose behaviors present a current threat and students who have merely done something stupid in their teenage lives they now regret.
- Students, faculty and administration should all be involved in creating a policy.
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