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Colleges that ask applicants about brushes with the law draw scrutiny

The online admissions application for Auburn University appears simple, until you get to this question on Page 7:

“Have you ever been charged with or convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime other than a minor traffic offense, or are there any criminal charges now pending against you?”

Those who check “yes,” even though they have never been convicted of any crime, face extra scrutiny — a follow-up call from the admissions office asking for additional information, the university says.

Auburn, in Auburn, Ala., is 1 of 17 universities in the South that include broad questions on their admissions applications about any contact with the legal system or police that applicants might have had — even an arrest, with no conviction — according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group. The universities are now the focus of an inquiry by the organization, which says such questions unfairly penalize minorities, who tend to face arrest more frequently and, as a result, could face higher admissions hurdles.

“The disparities and underrepresentation we see at schools is a concern, and this may indeed be one of the contributing factors,” said Kristen Clarke, the group’s executive director, citing statistics showing low black enrollment at some of the colleges. At Auburn, for example, African-Americans make up 7 percent of the student body in a state where blacks total about 25 percent of the population.

The organization planned to announce Thursday that it would inquire about practices at Auburn and the 16 other institutions that it says have applications containing questions about arrests or other contact with the criminal justice system that stops short of a conviction. The group plans to contact the institutions in the first wave of a national initiative aimed at reducing the impact of even minor criminal histories on college admissions.

While the universities it is focusing on are in seven Southern states, the organization said such questions may be asked by colleges nationwide.

Charles Martin, an Auburn spokesman, said that indicating “yes” to the crime question on the admissions application did not disqualify students. “The admissions office calls the applicant directly to obtain more information,” he said.

But Clarke said that in some cases, students might be intimidated and elect to opt out of the admissions process rather than answer the question.

The University of Alabama, where blacks make up 12 percent of the student body, asks prospective students if they are “subject to arrest” and poses the question: “Have you ever received a written or oral warning not to trespass on public or private property?”

A study in 2010 by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group in New York, found that 66 percent of colleges ask for criminal history information in admissions, and that some of them look unfavorably even on misdemeanor arrests. At the time, the organization said, the use of such questions appeared to be on the rise after several high-profile criminal cases on university campuses.

The Common Application, used by 600 colleges, does not inquire about arrests, but it does ask whether applicants have ever been convicted of a crime. The application also advises that students need not answer yes if their records have been expunged or otherwise sealed.

“Lots of colleges and universities don’t like the fact that they feel like they have to ask these questions,” said Michael Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “But they feel like they do, just because of how prominent some of these cases are of things like sexual assault on college campuses. And they feel like they need to do what they can to screen students.”

The civil rights group identified Virginia Tech, whose enrollment is 4 percent black, as one of the colleges it would look at. The university’s application asks, “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a violation of any local, state or federal law, other than a minor traffic violation?”

A spokesman for the University of Alabama, Chris Bryant, said the university had included disciplinary-related questions on its application since 2010 to try to determine whether an applicant’s past behavior posed a safety risk. Answering yes to the questions was not an absolute bar to admission, he said, adding that the university was committed to ensuring that its policies were not discriminatory.

A spokeswoman for Virginia Tech said the university added questions to its application after April 16, 2007, when a student there shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide. The student had previously been accused of stalking.

“These questions are part of a holistic approach in selecting qualified applicants for undergraduate admission,” said the spokeswoman, Tracy Vosburgh. “We do not believe this is racially discriminatory.”

In 2014, three New York colleges dropped arrest language from their admissions applications after a request from the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, whose office had surveyed 70 institutions of higher learning in New York to find out whether they asked the questions.

“An arrest or police stop that did not result in a conviction, or a criminal record that was sealed or expunged, should not — indeed, must not — be a standard question on a college application,” Schneiderman said at the time.

Clarke said her organization planned to ask the 17 colleges on its list why their application forms include such questions. The colleges were selected because publicly available documents revealed that they asked the questions.

The 17 colleges include several historically black universities and colleges.

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