How long should bad choices haunt college-bound students?

Higher Education
by Melinda Taylor
Posted 3/03/16, 12:35 pm

A group of lawyers wants to remove high-school discipline questions from the Common Application used by the admissions offices of more than 600 colleges and universities. Officials from participating universities previously asked that those questions be included, but some say it’s possible they do more harm than good.

Two queries about infractions committed within and outside of school appear on the Common Application, which 860,000 students completed last year. Universities that accept the application requested in 2006 to have the questions included. Students have space on the form to explain their behavior and even how being disciplined might have benefitted them.

“A student can say, in ninth grade, I was expelled or suspended, and because of that incident, the alcohol thing I did, I became interested in [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] or became a volunteer,” said Aba Blankson, senior director at the not-for-profit Common Application Inc.

But Blankson said the organization believes it’s time to talk with school officials about campus dynamics and what constitutes meaningful information. Common Application is surveying admissions deans around the country, asking what types of information it should collect.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law last month called for the removal of discipline questions from the Common Application, saying most colleges don’t have formal policies guiding its use. The group said it is also concerned minorities could face discrimination based on answers they give to discipline questions. Federal statistics show minority students are suspended and arrested at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers.

“So long as racial disparities persist at every stage of our criminal justice system, we fully expect that these kinds of questions will unfairly deny educational opportunity to, or have a chilling effect on, African Americans and other minority groups,” wrote Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the committee, in a letter to Common Application.

Earlier this year, New York University asked Common Application to review whether the discipline questions were helpful to admissions personnel and whether they might discourage minority applicants. The university has begun to disregard answers to those questions until after initial screening.

But some university officials say it’s important to continue to include the questions because students’ past behavior can point to future disciplinary problems. 

“It would be my preference for them to remain,” said Susan Schaurer, director of admission at Miami University in Ohio. “I think we use a fair practice in utilization of the information. Students who have individual infractions aren’t penalized in any way, but it is a way to determine whether students we’re bringing in will lead to the safety and well-being of our campus.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Melinda Taylor

Melinda is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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