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URBANA — Admissions applications to the University of Illinois this year are missing a box: the one that asks about a student’s criminal history.

The UI System has taken those questions off the initial application for undergraduate enrollment but will ask students about criminal background once they have been accepted.

It’s a response to the “ban the box” movement that calls for eliminating criminal history questions from job applications or college admissions. Advocates say they can discourage even people with minor offenses from applying.

Last year, a student-led coalition called “Yes Apply Illinois” urged UI trustees to drop questions about criminal and disciplinary history from admissions applications altogether.

UI Vice President Barbara Wilson said the “box blind” policy moves questions about criminal background to the point after an admissions decision has been made but before students enroll, “balancing safety and access.”

“The boxes aren’t gone, but they are moved to a place where we can safely manage the issue but get rid of the chilling effect of having them at the front end,” Wilson said.

All three UI campuses are adopting the policy, she said.

‘Boxed Out’

The issue has been discussed nationally for several years in higher education circles.

Illinois and other states have adopted laws requiring employers to ask questions about criminal history only after a hiring decision has been made, so that applicants are evaluated fairly.

Illinois lawmakers have proposed bills to prohibit public or private universities in the state from considering criminal history in admissions decisions, except where required by law. A House measure introduced last January by Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, failed on a 40-60 vote in April, with Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, the only area representative voting yes.

A frequently cited 2015 study at the State University of New York, “Boxed Out,” found that more than 60 percent of students who had to check the criminal history box didn’t complete their applications. The following year, SUNY opted to remove any questions about criminal history from its admissions process, though it asks about it when students apply for campus housing or other specific programs.

“That was an incredibly important and influential report,” said Julian Parrott, assistant vice president for academic affairs for the UI System, who oversaw the UI’s change.

The Common App, which allows students to apply to multiple universities through one application, also dropped criminal history questions this year, though individual schools can add it to their section of the application.

‘Vast majority’ admitted

At the UI, officials met with students, police chiefs, lawyers, advocacy groups, admissions officers and others on campus who would be affected by the change and talked with other states and university systems about how they handled the issue, Parrott said.

“The police chiefs were like, ‘What?’ But when we told them what we were thinking about ... they were perfectly fine with that,” he said, as long as the university maintained its ability to assess students’ backgrounds at some point, Parrott said.

Urbana campus Admissions Director Andrew Borst and Police Chief Craig Stone deferred questions to UI System officials.

Parrott said the UI wanted to ensure those ultimately admitted didn’t pose a security threat to campus. Asking the question has proven “incredibly useful,” he said.

The “vast majority” of UI students who answered “yes” to criminal background questions in the past have been admitted anyway, with 1 percent or less ultimately denied, officials said. The Urbana campus receives several hundred applications a year with a criminal history.

A student who answered yes on the application was asked for more information, which was reviewed by a committee that would make a recommendation to admissions officials. In some cases, the admission was conditional on drug or alcohol counseling or other restrictions, such as not being allowed to live in a residence hall.

New UI policy

Under the new “box blind” policy, students who are admitted will get a notice asking them to provide information about any criminal background along with their final high school transcripts and official test scores, which they report up front but have to verify before they enroll, Parrott said.

If they’ve been convicted, or charges are pending, they must provide a description of the incident, the outcome and documents such as court records or parole requirements. Applicants are also encouraged to provide a letter of explanation.

The information will be reviewed by a committee with members from student affairs, campus police, academic affairs and other units. That panel will decide whether to admit the student — with or without conditions — or rescind the offer.

As before, the committee will weigh the student’s age or other mitigating circumstances, the seriousness of the offense, how long ago it took place, and whether the student has taken responsibility or made retribution, Parrott said. Students also have the right to appeal a denial.

In the past, many more students were denied admission for disciplinary issues at their high school or community college than for criminal history, Parrott said.

The discipline question is still part of the initial UI application. Parrott said a student with severe behavioral issues in high school, such as violence or intimidation, could present more concerns than someone busted for smoking pot.

Parrott said a committee at each UI campus will track the new policy to see how it works.

Why Illinois law failed

The bill introduced in Springfield last year would have allowed colleges to ask questions about criminal history after a student is admitted, but they couldn’t use it to rescind an offer of admission.

That was the “sticking point,” said Aaron Woodruff, police chief at Illinois State University.

It also did not distinguish between felonies and misdemeanors or types of crimes.

Woodruff sees a better model in a 2017 law adopted in Louisiana, which bars schools from asking about most convictions until after students are admitted. It makes exceptions that allow schools to ask about sexual violence or stalking convictions, a growing concern on college campuses.

Woodruff thinks schools should retain the right to deny admission to an offender who would pose a significant risk to students.

“Ultimately, that’s our biggest concern,” he said.

The proposed Illinois law only applied to criminal history information, so students who had been dismissed from school for a Title IX violation would have had to disclose that on their applications, Woodruff noted.

ISU still asks criminal history questions at the front end of the application process, he said. As with the UI, “very few are denied,” and in those cases it’s typically for sex offenses or something equally serious, he said.

Questions ‘invasive’

The UI’s decision doesn’t go far enough for William Vavrin, a 2019 graduate of the UI Chicago and founder of “Yes Apply Illinois.” He calls the questions “invasive and humiliating.”

Vavrin would like the UI to remove them entirely “so students don’t have to worry about their applications ultimately being rejected during that waiting period. You still have the possibility of getting denied.”

The policy also works against the UI’s mission as a public land-grant university and its messages about diversity, he said.

“You feel like you’re not welcome,” said Vavrin, who is now a teacher.

The UI is a “huge engine of a student’s individual growth and transformation” into a taxpaying citizen who contributes to the economy, he said. It should be available to students who have a minor offense in their past and have paid for their mistakes, he said.

“They’re applying to a university because they want to better their lives,” Vavrin said.

News-Gazette

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).