The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taking a lawbreaking past out of college applications

Stanley Andrisse, a post-doctoral scientist at Johns Hopkins University, spent time in prison on drug charges before he earned advanced degrees. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

The rejection notices from the graduate programs at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Missouri didn’t offer Stanley Andrisse an explanation. But the former drug dealer thinks he knows why the schools turned him down: He checked the box on the application that asked whether he’d been convicted of a crime.

It took a former professor personally vouching for him before he finally won admission to St. Louis University, where he earned a doctorate.

“I am a convicted felon,” Andrisse, now a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Maryland lawmakers this month at a hearing on whether the state should forbid questions about criminal records on college applications. “But I am also a doctor, a scientist . . . a youth mentor, a published author and many other things. Eliminating me before you know all of these other great things is an injustice to society.”

A bill being debated by the General Assembly would make Maryland the first state to prohibit public and private colleges and universities from including questions about criminal history on their applications. Admissions offices could still ask applicants who have been accepted whether they have been convicted of a crime, but could not withdraw an offer of admission based on the answer.

Advocates say having the question on applications can disqualify some candidates and scare away others. Getting rid of it, in their view, would be the next step in Maryland's quest to level the criminal justice playing field and help felons remake their lives.

Opponents, including some college administrators, say the question yields valuable information about potential students and would be hard to excise from application forms, given that many institutions rely on the Common Application, which asks about criminal history.

“I think it is in the campuses’ best interest to know,” said Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and a former adjunct professor at Towson University. “Rape, murder, inappropriate contact with a minor — that’s pretty relevant stuff. Misdemeanors, theft under $100 — not so much.”

The push to remove questions about criminal convictions is part of a broader criminal justice reform effort underway in Maryland and across the country. More than a dozen states, including Maryland, already prohibit most public employers from inquiring about past convictions on job applications, though they can ask after agreeing to interview a prospective employee. Two years ago, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed the Second Chance Act, which shields certain nonviolent offenses from online criminal records.

But despite a strong effort from advocates, and a push by the administration of former president Barack Obama, no states so far have taken the additional step of “banning the box” on college applications. New York is considering a bill similar to Maryland’s, according to state legislative analysts, and the State University of New York and the University of California system have removed the question from applications on their own.

Sen. Joan Conway (D-Baltimore), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said she expects an amended version of the proposal to be approved by the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which she chairs. Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), House bill sponsor and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also anticipates the measure receiving a favorable vote in her committee.

Both lawmakers said the legislation would remove an obstacle that keeps convicts out of college, but would still allow universities to get the information that they need later in the admissions process.

“I do think the question inhibits many of them from even applying. And that is really the point that we’re trying to make and the hurdle we’re trying to overcome,” McIntosh said.

Del. Erek Barron (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor, said that having a question about past convictions on a college applications constitutes “unnecessary scrutiny” of ex-offenders.

“We expect Marylanders who have criminal histories to have learned their lesson and move on to productive, positive citizenship,” Barron said. “But [they] are often thwarted when they encounter college applications that ask if they have ever been convicted of crimes.”

Some legislators argue that the measure may be too broad. During a recent hearing, they questioned whether the state should impose the law on private universities, whether schools should be able to rescind an applicant’s acceptance after a background check is conducted and whether it made sense not to know if applicants have been charged with violent crimes.

“The institutions have a responsibility for their students and their safety,” said Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), a member of Conway’s committee.

More than 600 colleges across the country use the Common Application, which has asked applicants about their criminal history since 2006. After the Obama administration urged colleges last year to consider dropping the question, the Common Application changed its wording but continued to ask about criminal convictions.

Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Maryland, testified against the bill. Responding “yes” to the question does not disqualify an applicant from being admitted, Boughman said. Rather, it allows a college or university to assess the applicant’s qualifications, provide support and guide the applicant on fields of study.

A 2013 survey of 50 Maryland colleges showed that 40 percent included a question about criminal history on their online applications. Natalie J. Sokoloff, a professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who conducted the study, found that private and four-year colleges were more likely to include the question than other institutions.

The applications from prospective students with criminal histories were forwarded to a special review committee, Sokoloff said, and most schools offered an appeals process to applicants who were rejected because of their past.

Among those who testified in support of the bill was Chris Wilson, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in 1997, when he was barely 18. While locked up, he learned foreign languages and earned his high school equivalency and an associate’s degree.

Wilson was released in 2011 and was admitted to the University of Baltimore after writing a letter to the admissions office to explain his incarceration. Today, he owns a construction company and a furniture restoration business. He employees other ex-offenders and is still taking university courses so he can earn a bachelor’s degree.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t get a second chance,” Wilson told lawmakers.

Andrisse testified that going to graduate school was a “game-changer” for him, one that he said would have come much more easily had he not been asked about criminal convictions on his applications.

“As small as that one sentence may be, it is a mountainous barrier to someone like myself,” Andrisse said.