College application questions face scrutiny

By Joseph Guzy | Photo Editor A City of Pittsburgh Police car. High school students who have had run-ins with the law might be discouraged from applying to colleges do to application questions.
By Joseph Guzy | Photo Editor A City of Pittsburgh Police car. High school students who have had run-ins with the law might be discouraged from applying to colleges do to application questions.
By Joseph Guzy | Photo Editor
A City of Pittsburgh Police car. High school students who have had run-ins with the law might be discouraged from applying to colleges do to application questions.

By Julian Routh | Editor-in-Chief

A civil rights advocacy group recently opened inquiries with 17 southern universities about how questions on their admissions applications unfairly discriminate against minority applicants — questions that Duquesne has on its application, too.

According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, application questions that ask about a prospective student’s criminal history — including stops, detentions or other contact with the criminal justice system — disproportionately impact black applicants, who are more likely to have come in contact with police.

Duquesne requires prospective students to check “yes” or “no” to two questions regarding their criminal history. One asks applicants if they have any criminal charges pending against them other than a summary traffic offense. The other asks if they have ever been convicted, pled guilty or pled no contest to a crime other than a summary traffic offense.

The questions are followed by a disclaimer that reads, “Answering ‘yes’ to this question will not eliminate you from consideration for admission to the university.”

Brenda Shum, director of the group’s initiative, wrote in an email to The Duke that Duquesne’s questions are “potentially problematic” because they solicit information about criminal history.

“I would emphasize that the Lawyers’ Committee is committed to campus safety,” Shum wrote. “However, there is very little evidence that soliciting such information produces any meaningful improvement in campus safety. In fact, there is some evidence that it has no such effect.”

A 2015 report by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group in New York, stated that requiring applicants to disclose their criminal history may deter them from submitting an application, or disqualify them completely.

Duquesne spokeswoman Rose Ravasio said there have been “very few times” since 2001 that the university has had to follow up with a prospective student about their criminal history, and only once has an applicant been disqualified as a result.

“We have not received any negative feedback about these specific questions, which were implemented to protect the university community, including the students that we serve,” Ravasio said.

The University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University and Point Park University all ask variations of criminal history inquiries on their admissions applications. Prospective Pitt students who check “yes” to if they have ever been seriously disciplined or convicted of a felony are required to further explain on the application itself.

According to Shum, even though Duquesne asserts that answers to the questions will not automatically disqualify applicants, “Requiring the disclosure of criminal history … may discourage many applicants (including minority applicants) from pursuing higher education.”

Some schools across the country started requesting information about prospective students’s criminal histories after incidents occurred on campus. Virginia Tech added the questions to its application after a student shot and killed 32 students and wounded 17 others before killing himself on campus in April 2007.

Ravasio said she cannot recall a specific incident that influenced Duquesne to list these questions, but that “the addition of the questions followed best risk-management practices nationally.”

But the committee claims the questions improperly influence the demographic makeup of colleges. At Auburn University, one of the universities under examination by the committee, blacks make up 7 percent of the student body in a state where African-Americans make up approximately 25 percent of the population.

The 2015 freshman class at Duquesne was the most diverse in university history, with the percentage of minorities rising to 17.1 percent from 13.7 percent the year before, according to statistics provided by the public affairs department. African-Americans made up 5.8 percent of the class, which is 5.8 percent less than the percentage of blacks of the total population of Pennsylvania.

The advocacy group launched its first wave of inquiries with southern universities on Jan. 28. A press release from the group said it plans to expand the initiative to more universities soon.

The Common Application, used by more than 800,000 students to apply to 600 different colleges, requires applicants to indicate whether or not they have been convicted of a crime or faced serious disciplinary action in school.

According to a Jan. 28 story in the New York Times, an enrollment officer from New York University recently wrote a letter to Common Application executives asking for “an expedited review of whether those questions on its form are fair or necessary.”

The committee launched its second phase of the initiative Feb. 19 requesting that the Common Application remove criminal history questions, according to Shum.

Three New York colleges dropped arrest questions from their applications in 2014 after state attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman questioned their benefit, according to the Times.

“An arrest or police stop that did not result in a conviction, or a criminal record that was sealed or expunged, should not — indeed, must not — be a standard question on a college application,” he said at the time.

Shum said the committee has not yet reviewed Duquesne’s admissions practices, but that she “would like to look into this more closely.”