As of 2018, students who apply to a two-year or four-year college within the State University System of New York will no longer have to disclose whether they have been convicted of a felony.
SUNY officials, who oversee the nation's largest public university system, voted on Wednesday to "ban the box" on student applications that asks about criminal history. An internal memo outlining SUNY's decision credited a 2015 analysis that found nearly two-thirds of applicants who disclosed having a felony record had dropped out of the application process.
Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Syracuse-based Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group for former inmates that investigated SUNY's treatment of applicants, said he was elated to learn that his analysis influenced the change.
"This is the first public education system in any state to reverse course, and reject the box," Rosenthal told The Marshall Project. "Hopefully other states will do the same."
SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis, however, noted that students will still face criminal background inquiries when applying for on-campus housing, internships and study abroad programs.
NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Adrien Cadwallader sat with half a dozen campus officials and nervously confessed the low points of his troubled history: the 20 arrests, the drug addiction, followed by the diagnoses of bipolar disorder and PTSD.
He fought tears as he tried to explain to the gathering of official gatekeepers why he, a 33-year-old former cocaine dealer with violent impulses, deserved to sit in a college classroom of doe-eyed 20-somethings.
“I told them how difficult it is to live with the guilt for the things that I have done,” said Cadwallader, recounting his admissions interview at the State University of New York campus in New Paltz, a working-class town in the middle of horse-farm country 90 miles north of Manhattan.
Cadwallader had taken classes while behind bars in the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility near Saratoga Springs, and hoped upon his release that a college degree would get him off the path that had taken him in and out of prisons for eight years.
When he checked the box on the New Paltz application owning up to his felony record, the demands began. The school wanted letters from the prison psychologist, the prison superintendent and his parole officer, and his full criminal record. Cadwallader replied that Mt. McGregor did not have a psychologist and that he never interacted with the superintendent. He submitted letters from his current psychologist, psychiatrist and parole officer, and braced for the screening committee. There, he says, he was grilled about his record — including arrests for misdemeanors and for charges that had been dismissed.
“They kept asking me about my rap sheet,” said Cadwallader. “It doesn’t tell my full story. Those things were done by a person that is no longer me.”
“I felt like I was being set up to fail.”
New Paltz turned him down, as did another state school, Dutchess Community College. New Paltz explained only that the admission process “is very competitive.” Cadwallader has abandoned his college aspirations and is living on welfare.
Adrien Cadwallader is one of roughly 2,900 college hopefuls who apply each year to the 60 campuses within The State University of New York and check a box disclosing he or she has been convicted of a felony. He is unusual in one important respect: he stuck with the application process to the end. Most find the admission hurdles for ex-felons so daunting that they give up.
According to a forthcoming analysis of state records by the Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group that lobbies for alternatives to incarceration, about three out of five applicants with felony records drop out between application and admission, discouraged from pursuing an education that might equip them for a crime-free future. Among applicants without criminal records, the dropout rate is only about one in five, according to the report, believed to be the first such study of a major public university system.
For every applicant like Cadwallader who is rejected outright, 15 give up when confronted with the demand for intrusive documents and interrogation by a screening committee, the study found.
An advance copy of the study and the data1 behind it were made available to The Marshall Project and WNYC radio as part of an examination of how public universities handle applicants with criminal records.
At a time of growing concern about the country’s overpopulated prisons and high rate of recidivism, new attention has focused on barriers that keep former inmates from reentering society with a reasonable chance to stay out of trouble. A campaign to “ban the box” — the box on job applications that denotes a criminal record — has won the support of major employers, including Target and Wal-Mart. Nineteen states along with nearly 100 cities and counties — including New York City — now place some restrictions on employers’ asking job candidates about their criminal background on an application. Some public university systems — including California’s, and the City University of New York — do not routinely ask applicants to divulge a criminal record.
“If we are sincere about criminal justice reform, economic independence, creating pathways out of poverty, and reducing our reliance on incarceration, then the college doors should be open to all,” said Ronald Day, an ex-felon who succeeded in gaining admission to SUNY Empire State College after a process he likened to running a gauntlet. After graduating, he applied for a Ph.D. program at another SUNY campus but, faced with a repeat round of interrogation, he withdrew his application. He enrolled instead in a City University of New York program. “We can create more thoughtful and inclusive admissions policies, but we need to start by thinking outside the box,” he said.
But nationally many universities, responding to the safety concerns of students and parents, require extra screening of applicants with criminal records. The Common App — a standardized application process accepted by more than 500 schools — asks applicants whether they have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony. The question was added to the application in 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech massacre.
“It reflects the needs of the very diverse group of colleges who use the Common Application,” said the company’s spokesperson, Aba Blankson. “The application is about getting to know the student from different perspectives.”
Historically, high-profile campus crimes have often led to more stringent screening of present and prospective students — along with more hiring of security personnel and stricter reporting of incidents on campus.
The on-campus rape and murder of a 19-year-old Lehigh University student, Jeanne Clery, in 1986 sparked a national debate about campus safety. (Clery’s killer did not have a prior criminal record.) Four years later, Congress passed the so-called Clery Act, requiring that colleges and universities publicly report on-campus violence along with drug and alcohol violations. The parents of the murdered student founded the Clery Center for Security on Campus as a resource for student crime victims.
The organization’s executive director, Alison Kiss, defended the use of background checks for college applicants, calling them “one layer of prevention.”
After two student-on-student murders in 2004 at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, that state’s public university system revamped its admissions policies. Applicants now have to divulge not only criminal records, but whether they have ever been on academic probation or suspended from high school. The university may order background checks on prospective students who admit to having criminal histories.
Officials at Virginia Tech created a Threat Assessment Team after the 2007 on-campus shooting rampage that killed 27 students and five faculty members. A group of university police detectives and administration officials investigate reports of suspicious behavior by students, staff and visitors.
“There is really no data that shows students with criminal histories commit more crimes on campus than other students,” said Robert Stewart, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. Yet Stewart’s reviews of applications at 1,407 four-year colleges for a forthcoming study found that 70% of schools ask prospective students to share their criminal history.
Campuses in New York’s state system, with 460,000 full-time students the largest state university system in the nation, are obliged by SUNY policy to ask about felony convictions, but they vary widely in their treatment of ex-felons. After a prospective SUNY student checks the criminal history box, officials send a letter or an email asking for additional paperwork. The researchers at the Center for Community Alternatives counted a total of 38 different documents that the schools have required former felons to provide, including documents that are protected by privacy laws, documents that can be all but impossible to obtain, and in some cases documents that do not exist.
Although SUNY policy declares that applicants should be judged only by felony convictions, some probe outside the boundaries. Erie Community College, near Buffalo, requires applicants to provide a “letter of discharge,” on court letterhead, to explain the outcome of arrests that did not lead to convictions. Some campuses demand that criminal histories be sent directly from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, although that agency releases records only to the offender.
All campuses require applicants who have checked the box to have a review committee scrutinize their submitted documents and often to interview the applicants. These panels may include campus law enforcement and mental health specialists in addition to admissions officials. (Buffalo State includes a member of the athletic department.)
“Each of the campuses are doing what they want,” said Alan Rosenthal, the director of justice strategies for the Center for Community Alternatives and the lead author of the 85-page report on SUNY practices. “It’s one big mess.”
Dona Bulluck, an associate counsel for SUNY, said schools have been verbally instructed that the chair of the screening committee should redact information such as juvenile records before sharing documents with members.
“If individuals encounter a problem with a particular campus, unless we are made aware of the issue, we can’t address it,” she said.
In a followup email, another SUNY official, Director of Public Relations Casey Vattimo, said the university system would encourage admissions personnel on all campuses to attend annual training on the policies for handling applications from ex-offenders.
Paul Berger, the deputy commissioner for SUNY police, said the screening is “a way to balance the educational access of ex-offenders with campus safety.” It is also, he said, a way to weed out applicants who are not equipped to confront the complexities of higher education.
“College campuses are not a therapeutic environment,” he said. “There is a lot of recreational drug use. There are other activities that happen on college campuses. And the question we would have: is this person going to be successful in this environment? Or will they be tempted into failure in this environment?”
In comparison, the City University of New York, a system with 23 schools and more than 269,000 degree-seeking students, does not routinely ask applicants about their criminal past. The university does have a policy authorizing an individual campus “to deny admission to students who may pose a risk to the college.” A CUNY spokesman said the institution wants all students, even past criminals, to have access to a higher education.
Applicants who have been convicted of sex crimes are the most likely to face close scrutiny at CUNY and elsewhere. Federal law requires that law enforcement agencies track the whereabouts of sex offenders enrolled in colleges and universities. CUNY is notified by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services if one of its student is in the state’s sex offender database.
The vetting process for potential students at New York’s private colleges and universities can be even more stringent than in the public system, according to Stewart’s research. Touro College, a Jewish institution that is based in Manhattan and has a sizable black student population, tells applicants to disclose any convictions that were sealed, expunged or removed from criminal records. (Asked about the requirement, a Touro spokeswoman said that “a question intended for professional school applicants inadvertently became the default question for our base application. This is being evaluated, and we thank you for bringing this to our attention.” The college subsequently said it has revised its policy to require sealed records only for its professional schools.)
Last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pressured three private schools — St. John’s University, Dowling College and Five Towns College — to revamp their admissions processes. Schneiderman admonished the schools in October for inquiring about arrests that did not lead to convictions.
The attorney general’s office declined to discuss its policy on the record, but issued a statement saying that its Civil Rights Bureau “has launched a broad initiative to combat barriers to re-entry faced by individuals with prior contact with the criminal justice system. The office will continue to ensure that every New Yorker has the chance to earn a living and lead a productive life after paying a debt to society.”
Former inmates and advocates say the burden of “the box” falls disproportionately on black applicants, since African-American men have high rates of incarceration. The Center for Community Alternatives survey suggests this is particularly true at community colleges, which have traditionally been an economic ladder for poor and minority students.
Indeed, at most community colleges included in the survey the percentage of blacks who admitted to having felony convictions was two or three times as high as the percentage of blacks in the general admissions population.
Alexandra Cox, a sociology professor as SUNY-New Paltz, said she takes the disparity between the large numbers of young black men in prison and their scarcity on the state’s campuses as a call to action. Cox guides incarcerated teenagers as they apply to the college and has become a vocal on-campus advocate for enrolled students with arrest records.
“I feel very committed to the idea that we aren’t judged by the worst mistake that we ever made,” Cox said.
For applicants not defeated by the obstacle course, the opportunity to pursue an advanced education is seen as a genuine reward.
Michael Manos, who spent more than 16 years in prison for being an accessory to kidnapping and grand larceny is now, at age 51, a first-year student at Dutchess County Community College. Manos said he almost dropped out of the school’s admissions process, angry that he had to show officials his rap sheet and meet with a felony review committee. Now he wants to become a paralegal.
“I look at this as my new life,” Manos said. “I feel that God has blessed me and has given me a new reason to be here.”
“If you just get past the rough part,” he added, “There’s a massive payoff.”
This story has been updated since its original publication date to reflect an increase in the number of states that have banned most pre-employment checks on an applicant's criminal history.