By Ronald Day, Associate Vice President, David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy
In a major step forward for formerly incarcerated people, the State University of New York (SUNY) recently voted to remove the question about criminal history from its student application.
This decision comes after the SUNY Board of Trustees heard testimony from formerly incarcerated student advocates, who spoke about how the conviction question is a barrier in the college application process.
I was one of these justice-involved students who testified before the Board of Trustees last May. My story demonstrated the ability for justice-involved people to excel in college, and the importance of removing the conviction question in order to transform lives.
When I was convicted and sentenced to prison, I only had a General Education Diploma (GED). However, after talking about the benefits of college with other incarcerated men, I became committed to earning a college degree and enrolled in classes upon arriving at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. My determination to complete a college education never wavered and I earned 51 academic credits during my time inside.
After my release nine years ago, I applied to SUNY Empire State College. Because of my justice involvement, I was required to answer supplemental questions and submit such as a letter from my parole officer and my rap sheet .
Applying to college is a challenging process that can be intimidating to any prospective student, but it is even more rigorous and burdensome for justice-involved applicants who are otherwise academically qualified. Formerly incarcerated people can have incredible academic potential, but the conviction question on college applications is a barrier that can prevent them from discovering their academic abilities.
In fact, a 2015 study conducted by the Education From the Inside Out Coalition and the Center for Community Alternatives showed that 62.5% of SUNY applicants who disclose a prior felony conviction never complete their applications, compared to 21% of applicants with no criminal history. In addition, there is no empirical evidence that having a criminal background question on an application makes a campus safer.
The unnecessarily arduous supplemental process is expensive, time-consuming, and stigmatizing. It took an enormous amount of energy and strong character to avoid becoming discouraged.
But over a period of nine years, that energy led to me completing my Bachelor’s in Science degree at SUNY Empire State and graduating with a Master’s Degree with Honors at City University of New York (CUNY) Baruch College. Moreover, I am currently a fifth-year criminal justice doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. For six semesters, I taught in the Master’s in Public Administration program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and am now the Assistant Vice President of our David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. Without education, I could not have acquired the knowledge and skills I apply to my work at The Fortune Society today.
At Fortune, I regularly interact with clients whose ability to focus on higher education is compromised by many other competing priorities. This can make the process of applying to college uniquely challenging for them. However, education empowers formerly incarcerated people to stay out of prison, pursue successful career paths, and positively impact their communities. If we are sincere about criminal justice reform, economic independence, creating pathways out of poverty, and reducing our reliance on incarceration, then college doors should be easily accessible to all.
SUNY’s decision to #BanTheBox from college applications sends a powerful message to the nation about the importance of quality education in rebuilding the lives of justice-involved people. Providing fair access to these individuals is a small but significant step in stopping the “revolving door” that traps many in the criminal justice system. At Fortune, we applaud SUNY’s decision to “remove the box,” and hope that it encourages other institutions of higher education to remove barriers to success for people with criminal convictions.
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