Applying for college is not easy. The list of things schools look at these days seems endless… SAT scores, transcripts, essays, extracurricular activities, even volunteer work. According to the Center for Community Alternatives, 66 percent of colleges and universities are now also looking at applicants’ criminal histories. There are plusses and minuses when it comes to using background checks for students. Most schools will point to the importance of campus safety on the positive side, but even the lowest-level offenses could boot students out of contention for financial aid and federal tax credits.
Once an institution makes the decision to use background checks, they need to be used properly for the sake of everyone involved. But surprisingly, the Center’s report, “The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered”, shows that only 40 percent of the schools using criminal record checks train their staff on how to conduct them and how to interpret the results. Untrained staff will inevitably miss things because they do not know where to look or how to search the records.
Regular readers of our blog know that using background information incorrectly can land you in a heap of legal trouble. According to Larry Henry, attorney at Rhodes Hieronymus, checking into a college applicant’s criminal history is an FCRA search. That means all of the same rules apply as if the school was an employer. Henry says colleges and universities must get consent to run the searches, set up a proper dispute process that gives prospective students copies of any positive reports, a copy of their rights under the FCRA and the opportunity to fix any incorrect information.
As we mentioned, there are minuses when it comes to using searches for college admissions. A big one is that most of the records -- if there are any -- are likely to be sealed by juvenile court. Henry recommends that institutions partner with a professional screening firm. He says it’s not just an issue of campus safety, but the right kind of checks could help the students as well. For example, a student might spend lots of time and money studying a sensitive field only to graduate and discover they will never get a job because of their criminal record. Bottom line, these searches can be very worthwhile for the institution and the applicant, but not if they are being done in a shoddy manner.