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SUNY to eliminate checkbox on felony convictions from student applications

Vivian Nixon knows firsthand what it feels like to be “boxed” out.

When she was released from prison in 2001 after serving 3½ years on a forgery charge, Nixon applied to attend SUNY Old Westbury.

On the application form, she checked yes in the box asking whether she had a felony conviction.

“I thought it was just data collection. I knew I had to tell the truth. I didn’t think anything of it,” Nixon recalled.

But that single checked box triggered an avalanche of requirements from the college.

Old Westbury wanted a copy of Nixon’s criminal rap sheet, a recommendation from her parole officer and an additional essay that described in detail the crimes she had committed, among a dozen requests in total. The process was so onerous, Nixon said, she gave up and wrote a letter of protest to the college president.

Fifteen years later, the little box that discouraged thousands of people with criminal backgrounds from pursuing a higher education is about to go away.

The State University of New York no longer will ask student applicants if they were convicted of a felony crime.

The SUNY board of trustees agreed Wednesday to get rid of the criminal history check box on application forms for admission to SUNY campuses, including the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State and Erie Community College.

Nixon, who campaigned against the box for years in her role as head of a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated women receive higher education, welcomed the policy change as a way to “give every potential student a chance to transform their lives with education.”

She ended up earning a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Empire State College, where she had studied prior to her incarceration and was able to return without reapplying.

However, Nixon said, many other potential students with felony records were not so lucky and had been shut out of higher education for too long.

A 2015 study by the Center for Community Alternatives found that nearly two-thirds of the 2,900 SUNY applicants per year who check the felony crime box did not complete the application process, an attrition rate that was three times higher than the attrition rate for applications from all students.

“It wasn’t that SUNY was denying them. They were scaring them away,” said Nixon, who also is pushing state legislators to adopt a new law that would make it illegal for any college and university to ask an applicant about prior convictions.

In making the change, trustees and SUNY administrators cited their commitment to ensuring the broadest possible access to public higher education.

“The spirit of this resolution is to remove bias from the application process,” said Marc J. Cohen, student trustee, who is from Williamsville.

The vote was the culmination of nearly a year of study by a working group of faculty and administrators from across the SUNY system. Advocates across the country have been calling upon colleges and universities to “ban the box” on their applications for admission. Public university systems in California and Wisconsin already have eliminated the criminal history check box on their applications.

The new SUNY policy will take effect next July, affecting the 2018 student recruitment cycle. Current SUNY policy requires student applicants to declare prior felony convictions.

As part of the new policy, colleges and universities will be allowed to ask about felony convictions when admitted students apply to live on campus, study abroad or do clinical or field work or internships.

Katherine S. Conway-Turner, president of SUNY Buffalo State, said the policy change removes a potential barrier to college education.

“It is well documented that young men from underrepresented groups are overly represented among felony convictions and feel they are barred from a college education by indicating a felony was a part of their background on their admission application,” Conway-Turner said in an email. “This information will still be collected later in the process and colleges like Buffalo State will be able to assess whether the potential student presents a risk to the college community before they are allowed to join the community.”

People with criminal histories, she added, “will not feel that they are immediately ineligible to better themselves and move beyond the legal infraction.”

Sharon Nolan-Weiss, director of the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity at UB, said the move likely would open opportunity for more students to apply to UB and other SUNY campuses.

“I do think it will have the effect of perhaps not discouraging people from applying,” Nolan-Weiss said. “Certainly, we want a safe environment, but people deserve a second chance.”

UB eliminated the felony conviction box on its employment applications in 2014.

“The idea is you don’t want somebody to be discouraged from applying. We want to be able to consider all of our applicants first,” she said.

The university still conducts criminal background checks of potential employees later on in the hiring process, she added.

Joseph B. Porter, who recommended the policy change, told trustees during a committee meeting Tuesday that state and federal statistics indicate no difference in the crime rates of campuses that ask prospective students about their criminal histories, compared with those institutions that don’t.

“We realize this is a big sea change we’re proposing, and controversial,” he said.

Nixon said she still had some concerns with the provision of the new policy that requires students to declare their felony convictions when seeking an internship or opportunities to study abroad. “We will be watching very closely to see the numbers of people who get accepted with criminal convictions and go through this secondary process and are not able to get internships or to study abroad,” she said.

Nixon said she understood that colleges and universities would want to know if a student who was applying to live in campus housing had a felony conviction, especially in instances of a sexual offense.


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