Panel Paper: Criminal Records and College Applications: A Field Experiment on College Admissions

Friday, November 9, 2018
Harding - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robert Stewart, University of Minnesota

Criminal justice and higher education are powerful sorting mechanisms in American social life. Criminal justice involvement can limit access and opportunities in various areas of life, such as restricting employment options, with particularly strong impacts for people of color. As a result, criminal justice involvement is associated with higher rates of unemployment and lower lifetime earnings. Conversely, higher education involvement can expand social opportunities that might otherwise not be available. Increased educational attainment is generally associated with relatively higher incomes and lower unemployment rates. However, policymakers and advocates have increasingly become concerned that the benefits of higher education might be out of reach for people with criminal records precisely because of their records. More than 70% of four-year college require applicants to disclose criminal history information to be considered for admission, and at least some are denied primarily because of their criminal records. In this paper, I present findings from a national study of college admissions that tests how criminal records affect admissions decisions using a modified audit design. I find that though a felony record is not a categorical disqualifier, felony testers were rejected 2.5 times more than their counterparts across both race conditions. Further, unlike prior audits of employment discrimination, I do not find significant differences between race. I discuss these findings within the context of the Ban-the-Box movement in higher education and other related policy questions.