Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Recently, the Maryland Senate voted to “ban the box” asking college applicants about their criminal history, settling a debate within the University of Maryland senate about the utility of the question. While this move tears down a barrier for people seeking higher education, it’s at odds with this university’s intensified focus on combating crime and serving its unique demographics. At the same time that the university is trying to improve hate incident documentation and understand what conflicts students face, it’s removing a source of potentially valuable information.
Colleges should seek to know their applicants well and understand their demographics. The frequency of hate bias incidents in the past year has strongly influenced this university’s climate, so it’s even more important to know where hateful sentiments are coming from. Asking for an individual’s background, including previous convictions, creates a holistic view of that person that could contextualize their future actions. That isn’t to say that someone who was convicted for a crime in the past is likely to commit one again, but rather that it’d be useful data to have on file.
Additionally, indicating whether one has a criminal history opens space for a personal statement where one can explain the circumstances of their conviction and how they’ve moved past it. There’s already space for applicants to advocate for themselves and add more dimension to their application, and it’s a good tool. If anything, this university should emphasize its holistic review of its applicants and how much weight it puts in these personal statements.
Proponents of removing the question don’t want to intimidate people with criminal histories from applying to college, and that’s a fair cause. However, we shouldn’t bend to societal stigma and try to disappear the past; instead, it should be universities’ jobs to indicate that checking the box isn’t a condemnation.
If the language of the question is too intimidating, then it should be reworded, and if the documents needed to verify a conviction are too difficult to obtain or contain more than the necessary information, then those requirements should be changed. But colleges shouldn’t erase peoples’ histories.
According to a 2011 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, more than 25 percent of Americans self-reported being arrested by age 23, and while those arrests don’t all lead to convictions, that’s still a sizable proportion of the population. This is a subset of people who have faced unique systemic challenges many people in higher education have not. They could benefit from their own resources and support networks, but they could only attain those benefits as an acknowledged demographic. By sanitizing this aspect of their identity, colleges can’t give applicants constructive attention, nor can they get more information about the other struggles they face going into higher education. We removed one barrier for these applicants, but now we don’t have the opportunity to discover and dismantle others.
We shouldn’t be casting the partitions of the American justice system — where criminals are siloed into one place, one caste, separated from the rest of society because they’re deemed categorically dangerous and degenerate — onto college applicants. With the criminal history question, educational institutions could actively work against this cultural injustice by demonstrating a willingness to work with those applicants and listen to their unique needs. Removing the box removes a way of understanding an individual’s circumstances and ultimately represents a lost opportunity.
Sona Chaudhary, opinion editor, is a sophomore English and geology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.