Last week, the Daily Trojan reported that USC graduate student Robert L. Walker II’s USC email is linked to a username that was active in a chatroom used to organize the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. last year. The Daily Trojan reported that there was a nationwide warrant issued for his arrest for failing to show up to court on a fourth-degree felony charge. This revelation has raised the question of whether or not the University knew about the student’s criminal history before accepting him into the graduate engineering program.
Similarly, debate has arisen over the Common App’s decision to remove a question about applicants’ past criminal arrests and convictions for the 2018-19 school year.
While it is undoubtedly important for colleges to be informed about an applicant’s criminal background if one exists, the Common App’s removal of the question is the right decision. This is true for three reasons. There is no demonstrable link between campus safety and students with criminal records; the policy would remove application barriers for those who need higher education the most; and universities can already obtain this information without asking applicants to self-report.
According to The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, there is neither evidence that screening for criminal histories increases campus safety, nor is there any evidence suggesting that students with criminal records commit crimes on campus in any way or at any rate that differs from students without criminal records.
In addition, colleges and universities that don’t ask students to provide their criminal history information do not report that their schools are less safe as a result, according to the same research. Therefore, there is little correlation between screening for criminal histories and campus safety.
Secondly, colleges have the responsibility to provide an education to all who are qualified, especially to deserving applicants with criminal histories who would benefit the most from a college degree.
Research led by Cal State, Los Angeles revealed that many convicted youths are cycled back into the juvenile justice system, and a lack of higher education was a consistent pattern among those who were re-arrested.
Because part of a university’s job is to provide qualified low-income students with opportunities they would not otherwise have, it is essential that qualified juvenile offenders — most of whom come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a study from Northwestern University — seek out and obtain a college education. It would not only benefit them, but also the greater community when they are pushed out of the criminal justice system’s cycle of trouble with the law.
The State University of New York found that qualified students were deterred from applying to college because of the Common App’s criminal history question; this finding is particularly troubling. If qualified students are choosing not to apply to receive a college education, they are much more likely to remain stuck in a cycle of crime. Universities can end this cycle by omitting the question and encouraging greater applications.
Finally, just because a student is not asked about his or her criminal history does not mean that a college cannot obtain this information with a simple background check. One study shows that only about two-thirds of all colleges conduct background checks on their applicants.
Here’s the bottom line: Universities must find a common ground between keeping students safe and providing students with opportunities. A criminal conviction cannot define a person’s life as a college applicant, especially if that crime was non-violent. If schools truly value a holistic admissions process, they cannot reject an otherwise qualified student because of a single arrest or conviction they most likely committed as a minor. Doing so is too harsh of a punishment that will prevent them from being reformed and reintegrated into society.
The power to punish juvenile convicts by refusing to consider them for admission is undoubtedly strong. But ultimately, the power to transform them by bringing them out of the criminal cycle is stronger. Universities should use less of the first power and more of the second.
Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore majoring in political science. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.