Should Getting Caught With Pot Keep Kids From Receiving College Loans?
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MAY 16, 2016A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.
For most black males, getting stopped, questioned, or even arrested by police by the time you reach adulthood is a fact of life. That encounter, however, can be a barrier to a college education: Several school and financial aid applications ask whether an applicant has had contact with the criminal justice system—justified or not—and weigh it as a factor before saying yes.
Now, in what’s being framed as an advancement in criminal justice reform, the U.S. Department of Education is calling on colleges and universities to eliminate the question, a move that closely echoes the federal “ban the box” initiative to improve hiring for job seekers with criminal records.
Last Monday, the department “urged America’s colleges and universities to remove barriers that can prevent the estimated 70 million citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education,” including banning questions about an applicant’s contact with the justice system. Besides eliminating prospective students who might otherwise be qualified, those questions can have a “chilling effect,” the department said, discouraging applicants before the process starts.
“We believe in second chances, and we believe in fairness,” Education Secretary John King Jr. said in a statement announcing new “Beyond the Box” guidelines for colleges and universities. “The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students,” including some who were unjustly charged and others who paid their debt to society.
Meanwhile, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has sponsored legislation that would remove a similar question from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that requires applicants to disclose any drug-related offense they’ve had while receiving federal student aid.
Called the Fair Access to Education Act, the bill, introduced in 2015, would exempt FAFSA applicants with misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses from having to check the box and would reinstate students whose applications were suspended because of those offenses.
“Students shouldn’t be singled out and put through an additional screening process if they have a misdemeanor marijuana possession on their record,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “The applicant has already done the time for the crime and should be treated the same as everyone else.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told TakePart that the impact of these developments extends beyond education to racial equality.
“What colleges and universities are doing, many of them, is they are including questions regarding convictions on their applications,” Clarke said. “But many of them sweep far more broadly, asking if [students have] ever been stopped by police or detained.”
At the same time, other colleges “are asking [applicants] whether or not they’ve received an oral warning not to trespass on private property,” she said. “This is an area that has not been regulated. It could have a disparate impact on African Americans and other minority students who are seeking access to college classrooms.”
Framing the move as a civil rights victory isn’t a stretch: Economists, education policy analysts, and even President Obama agree that a college education is vital to landing a job with middle-class wages. At the same time, there’s a significant “graduation gap” between white and black youths; minorities without a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or a specialized training certificate risk being left behind in the new economy.
Meanwhile, the president and top Democrats and Republicans have found common ground on criminal justice reform—specifically, in their focus on reducing the disproportionate number of black Americans behind bars. That includes the ban-the-box initiative, which prevents employers and landlords from asking about an applicant’s criminal record, and a political movement to restore voting rights to ex-offenders who were convicted of felonies.
“There’s an existing conversation happening about ending [mass incarceration], but there’s not enough to focus on the barriers and problems that sometimes lead people to become entangled, once again, in the criminal justice system,” including joblessness and undereducation, said Clarke.
While some colleges consider it a matter of public safety, Clarke said there’s no definitive link between campus crime and students who may have had contact with the law. That’s particularly true, she said, if colleges provide adequate support and guidance to students with criminal records.
While the criminal justice reform movement has gained a lot of attention, how a criminal record affects higher education has largely flown under the radar. Clarke said that’s largely because of relative inaction by the Education Department, but that seems poised to change.
The conversation around mass incarceration of black Americans “has grown tremendously,” but “it’s only now that we are [grappling with] the costs and consequences that mass incarceration has had on society,” Clarke said. The Justice Department guidelines, she added, “are a sign [officials are dealing with] one component of that problem.”