March 13th, 2014 | University

Princeton students lobby for clean slate in college applications

Students at Princeton University are lobbying their college not to ask students whether they have ever committed a crime.

Every Ivy League university and more than 500 other universities across America use the Common Application, an online undergraduate college application portal. One of the questions in the Common App asks applicants whether they have been convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime. A campus group at Princeton — Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) — has organized a petition drive to urge Princeton admissions officers not to consider the answers to this question when selecting incoming classes.

“In light of the racial and economic discrimination perpetuated by U.S. justice institutions, we believe that past involvement with the justice system should not be used to evaluate personal character or academic potential,” said the petition.

Shaina Watrous, a senior at Princeton and the co-founder of SPEAR, said the question is unfair because targeted policing strategies disproportionately affect black and Hispanic youth. She added that affluent students have better access to legal resources and are more likely to have their records expunged before they applied to college.

According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, 38.2 percent of white young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 in the U.S. reported any illicit drug use in the past year. But only 30.6 percent of African-American and 27.5 percent of Hispanic young adults reported similar usage. The higher rate at which Hispanic and African-American youths are incarcerated is therefore evidence of the justice system’s inequities, Watrous said.

One post by the SPEAR organization on their website added that the admissions office’s consideration of an applicant’s criminal history was not only unfair but diminished the diversity of Princeton’s student body.

“A lack of interaction with [people with a criminal record] fosters deep misunderstandings about the nature of the criminal justice system and those affected by it,” the online post said.

But Princeton admissions officers defended the practice of asking this question. Janet Rapeleye, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Princeton, said in an email to the Chronicle of Higher Education that an applicant’s chances were not necessarily diminished because of his or her criminal background.

She said Princeton takes all the information into account when determining a student’s candidacy, adding that the Common App provides an additional essay for students who answered yes to a criminal background to elaborate on the circumstances of the crime.

SPEAR is hosting an inaugural conference in the first week of April. The conference will discuss the current state of the U.S. criminal justice system and propose possible reforms.