Last week, the University’s Students for Prison and Education Reform began circulating a petition, titled the Admission Opportunity Campaign, calling on the University to change its admissions practices. In light of racial and socioeconomic inequalities found in the United States criminal justice system, the petition asks the University to remove all questions about past involvement with the justice system from the undergraduate admission application. University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua wrote in an email to the Board that the admissions office currently uses the information as part of a “holistic review of the applicant.”
“If a student checks yes on the misconduct and/or conviction question, the additional essay explaining the circumstances informs our decision. We read and assess every file individually, and the fact that the misconduct and/or conviction box has been checked does not automatically disqualify a student from being admitted,” Mbugua wrote.
With this information, we, the Board, recognize SPEAR’s petition as well intentioned but poorly informed. We endorse the admission office’s current process for considering misconduct and convictions. Moreover, we believe the Common Application’s format, which has students who have had involvement in the justice system check a box indicating their involvement and write an essay explaining the circumstances under which misconduct or a conviction occurred, is well suited to provide fair and useful information for admissions offices.
The Admission Opportunity Campaign’s strongest argument is that a history with the justice system is an unfair and biased metric. Thus, if prospective students with criminal backgrounds are rejected on account of such a history alone, those students who sincerely want to turn over a new leaf by means of education will be denied the opportunity. The Board recognizes this is true but does not conclude we should reject questions about criminal records as useful tools for evaluating potential students. The admissions office places value on high grades, exceptional test scores and challenging high school curricula. Nonetheless, these indicators of student performance carry similar biases against students who are too busy working to spend adequate time on schoolwork, unable to afford tutoring or born in locations that lack well-funded schools. We accept them as valuable tools in the admissions office’s toolbox because, despite their bias against the less privileged, they provide information to the University of a potential student’s performance at Princeton. The Board observes that knowledge of an applicant’s history with the justice system, especially within the context of the explanatory essay, can be useful for the admissions office and believes the University has the right to request that students provide such information. The essay section is especially valuable, as it enables applicants to tell their full stories to admissions counselors so that counselors can evaluate the convictions given the context of the applicants' explanation and background, just as the admissions office considers outside circumstances when evaluating high school achievement.
The Board sees two primary ways in which knowledge of a student’s involvement in the justice system might contribute to the admission office’s holistic review of applicants. First, it might indicate a student’s likelihood of committing crimes on campus. The Admission Opportunity Campaign attempts to refute this notion, claiming there isn’t empirical evidence to indicate screening improves on-campus safety and that 97 percent of students who engage in misconduct do not report criminal records. We reject this assertion. Its first claim comes from an unpublished dissertation and contradicts a reasonable inference that students who have committed a violent crime in the past would in the future. The Board believes the 97 percent statistic is misleading and uninformative without knowledge of what percent of a student body does or does not have a criminal record. If 99 percent of the student body lacked a criminal record, for example, the statistic would indicate that individuals with records commit crimes on campus at a higher rate than those without records. Many teenagers who commit nonviolent crimes are, in fact, one-time offenders. However, in the campaign to protect these students, we cannot assume that all offenders fall into this category. The Board is especially concerned about individuals who have committed violent crimes such as sexual assault. Thus, the Board finds SPEAR’s argument unconvincing and encourages the University to continue considering past convictions.
The second effect of the admissions office having knowledge of a student’s involvement in the justice system might actually benefit less privileged applicants who have been discriminated against by biased law enforcement. The Board believes that a well-authored essay explaining hardship as an explanation of past misconduct or conviction has the potential to add another dimension to someone’s application and enables the admission office to see that such a student could bring valuable viewpoints to the University’s classrooms. Moreover, SPEAR recognizes diversity as a goal to strive for, but we wonder how SPEAR expects the admission office to increase the number of students who have had past involvement with the justice system if the admission office is unaware of applicants’ pasts.
The Board would like to join SPEAR in advocating for an increase of Princeton students with past involvement with the America’s flawed justice system. We recognize their enrollment as a powerful means of both individual and systemic reform. However, we do not believe removing the application question is the best means to improve the situation of these applicants or the University.
Cara Eckholm and Brandon Holt abstained.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article did not disclose that Brandon Holt abstained from endorsing this Editorial. The 'Prince' regrets the error.