Campus News

Big Ten competitors already consider criminal history in admissions

The practice of considering criminal records is quite common among UW-Madison’s peer institutions, with 12 out of the 13 other Big Ten schools receiving information about applicants’ criminal histories during the admissions process.

Image By: Nick Monfeli-Cardinal File Photo

When Chancellor Rebecca Blank suggested that UW-Madison may begin considering criminal history in its admissions process, backlash from students swiftly ensued.

Opponents took to social media to rebuke the chancellor’s statement, and members of Associated Students of Madison immediately released a statement outlining their concerns.

“The practice of considering criminal history in admissions [is] unnecessary and discriminatory,” Representative Brooke Evans said in the statement, co-written by fellow ASM members Carmen Goséy and Katrina Morrison.

Blank’s suggestion came as a response to the revelation that Daniel Dropik, a UW-Madison student and the founder of a controversial “alt-right” group on campus, had committed two racially motivated crimes in 2005.

The practice of considering criminal records is quite common among UW-Madison’s peer institutions. Twelve out of the 13 other Big Ten schools, all but the University of Nebraska, say they receive information about applicants’ criminal histories during the admissions process.

The Big Ten strays from the trend in public institutions, as only 54 percent of public universities nationwide collect any criminal background information, according to a 2013 Center for Community Alternatives study.

Most Big Ten universities that employ the policy are quick to point out that even if a prospective student has a criminal record, it does not mean the student will be denied admission.

A spokesperson for the University of Minnesota said that although the school currently collects some criminal background information, it has plans this fall to stop asking whether applicants have been convicted of a felony.

“We concluded that admitting convicted felons doesn't represent a threat to the university because these individuals are self-reporting and have served their time,” Robert McMaster, Minnesota’s dean of undergraduate education, said. “Also, the university is concerned with the effect of completed applications from underrepresented minority populations.”

Other schools offer admission to students with criminal records, but may do so with caveats.

“[A review committee] can recommend admission with no action, admission with limitations, or no on-campus housing, or the applicant can be denied admission,” Rutgers University spokesperson Jeffrey Tolvin said.

Blank cited her commitment to campus safety as the reason to discuss changes to the UW-Madison admissions process. However, some experts say that considering criminal records does not lead to a decrease in campus crime.

According to Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, criminal history is not a reliable predictor of misconduct on campus.

“The fear is that parents will not want their children sitting next to someone who has been in prison,” Sokoloff told The Daily Cardinal. “But the irony is that campus crime is mostly committed by people who have no criminal record.”

Sokoloff is the coauthor of a study that examined the use of criminal history in admissions at 50 colleges in Maryland. She said some prospective students are more likely than others to be affected by policies like the one Blank is considering.

“One-third to one-half of people have some kind of arrest record,” Sokoloff said. “The main people that get hurt by these kinds of records are poor people and people of color.”

Students echoed Sokoloff’s concern that because people of color are incarcerated at a higher rate, they will be more affected by criminal background checks in admissions. They said that although Dropik’s history is alarming, looking at criminal history would do more harm than good.

“We are not mad that this man was admitted into the school,” Kaitlynne Roling, a UW-Madison sophomore and a member of Mixed-Race Student Union, said. “It is important that aspiring students who have made mistakes, who want to learn and who want to grow, have a chance to do so.”

Sokoloff said UW-Madison could consider adopting a policy of conducting a background check, but only after a student has been admitted to the university. No Big Ten school currently employs this policy.

“On a number of campuses … they will wait until the end of the process to look up a criminal record, when the person is already accepted,” Sokoloff said. “I think it’s appropriate, at that point, for them to know about an individual such as [Daniel Dropik].”

Blank said she will discuss potential policy changes with the Board of Regents.

Peter Coutu contributed to this report.

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