May 7, 2018
Expanding the American Dream: Destigmatizing Past Criminal Justice Involvement A statement by AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella
The Association of American Colleges and Universities is committed to higher education’s role in building a vibrant and inclusive American democracy. Our mission’s focus on quality and equity as the twin foundations for excellence in higher education compels us to advance college opportunity as a remedy for systemic inequality in society and as a gateway to future prosperity and flourishing for all.
A growing body of evidence illustrates how the stigma of past criminal justice involvement compounds racial and socioeconomic disparities while limiting opportunity for those who become involved in the criminal justice system. Some estimates indicate that up to one-third of American adults have criminal records, for reasons that include nonviolent offenses and arrests that did not result in conviction. These individuals—a disproportionate share of whom are men of color—face significant economic consequences, including low rates of employment and restricted earnings.[i]
For those who wish to chart a path to a better future, possibilities can be limited, and college admissions practices may further narrow their options. Many institutions collect information about criminal justice involvement as part of the college application process, and some data suggest that applicants with convictions on their records are considerably less likely to finish their college applications, perhaps due to fear that stigma will derail their dreams. Yet the evidence does not indicate that campuses are safer as a result of criminal history screening. In fact, because education has been associated with lower recidivism rates, educating those with past criminal justice involvement may have broad positive effects for society.[ii]
AAC&U believes that higher education should be an engine of opportunity for all, and we recognize that higher education has broad value to the public good. For this reason, we encourage our member institutions to review their practices related to criminal justice involvement and to promote discussion on their campuses about initiatives such as the national movement to “ban the box” (i.e., to remove questions about past criminal justice involvement from applications for admission). We support our members in taking action to mitigate the negative effects that such involvement can have on students, on communities, and on America’s democratic promise.
As AAC&U’s Board of Directors has said, “without inclusion, there is no true excellence.”[iii] We encourage higher education leaders, staff, faculty, and students to strive for the boldest vision of inclusive excellence possible, and to create communities of practice where all students can realize their American Dreams.