NEW YORK – The Board of Trustees at the largest comprehensive public university system in the nation voted today to give potential students with criminal histories a second chance by moving its criminal history check box off of its current application process. The move comes after the Board of Trustees heard public testimony from formerly incarcerated students and advocates in May, organized by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO), to explain what barriers “the box” presents for applicants with criminal justice histories.
Momentum has been building across New York State toward Banning the Box in higher education for years. Most recently, hundreds of students spent the spring rallying to make change at NYU, and SUNY campuses. The ground work was laid for these efforts as far back as 2010 by one of EIO’s leadership members, the Center for Community Alternatives. It was this research, along with an updated EIO and CCA 2015 report called “Boxed Out,” that laid the ground work for the federal guidance encouraging colleges and universities to go Beyond the Box. These new guidelines were announced in May by US Education Secretary John King, and both EIO Co-Founder Vivian Nixon and EIO leadership member Marsha Weissman were invited to the press conference at UCLA’s campus for the reveal. After its release, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher released a statement commending the move.
“I myself, was boxed out of SUNY Old Westbury when I reapplied to college after getting out of prison, and I am so happy to hear SUNY finally realized that we shouldn’t stop or deter anyone from bettering their life with education,” said Vivian Nixon, EIO’s Co-Founder, and Executive Director for College & Community Fellowship, a non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated women achieve a higher education. “I was able to finish my degree at SUNY Empire where I had completed a few courses prior to incarceration, and thus could return without reapplying. Others aren’t as lucky. I was so proud to represent EIO next to US Secretary of Education John King when he urged U.S. Universities and Colleges to look Beyond the Box back in May, and even prouder that SUNY has listened to our voices, our experiences, and will now give every potential student a chance to transform their lives with education.”
The 2015 study conducted by EIO and CCA showed that nearly two-thirds (62.5%) of SUNY applicants who disclose a prior felony conviction never complete their applications, compared to 21% of applicants with no criminal history across all of its 64 campuses. The study attributed the number to a “chilling effect” caused by a fear of stigma, and a set of complicated, and sometimes impossible, set of supplemental requirements once the box was checked.
“The research doesn’t lie. There is no empirical evidence that having a criminal history question on an application makes a campus any safer,” said Alan Rosenthal, Advisor on Special Projects for the Center for Community Alternatives, an organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and mass criminalization. “The bottom-line is that this ‘box’ does nothing but deter qualified applicants in desperate need of a second chance. People who attend college are less likely to have further involvement in the criminal justice system, thus making our communities safer. EIO is proud that SUNY has decided to pave the way for other universities across the country who are still asking this harmful question of its applicants, under the false assumption that it keeps a campus safe.”
The Education from the Inside Out Coalition helped write proposed legislation currently in committees of both houses of the New York State Legislature. The Fair Access to Education Bill (S969/A3363) would make it illegal for colleges and universities to ask an applicant whether they have been previously convicted of a criminal offense. EIO is hopeful SUNY’s decision to “move the box” will spur action on the issue and lawmakers will finally pass legislation to ensure every college and university in New York State bans the box in higher education.
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and EIO applauds SUNY for listening to our EIO members’ firsthand experiences with the box,” said Glenn E. Martin, Co-Founder of EIO and President of JustLeadership USA, which aims to cut the prison population in half by 2030. “We can only hope the news encourages lawmakers to pass current proposed legislation in New York State, which will permanently ban the box once and for all. Education is the key to building stronger communities, families, and future leaders in this country; nowhere should a person’s past solely define their self-worth or future.”