It’s time to unlock higher education for Pennsylvanians with records | Opinion

October 28, 2020 6:30 am

By Madelyn Guerra and Jamie Gullen

In the face of steep unemployment and the need for greater economic opportunities for all Pennsylvanians, the time is ripe for Pennsylvania to remove criminal record screening questions from college applications for its state schools. Bipartisan legislation (HB2952) recently introduced by state Reps. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny and Morgan Cephas, D-Philadelphia would do just that. 

Pennsylvania is already a leader in opening the door to better jobs and more economic opportunities for people with records. In 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to pass a Clean Slate law, automating the sealing of many arrest and misdemeanor conviction records.

More recently, Pennsylvania passed legislation to increase access to occupational licenses for people with records.

Supported by a wide range or organizations including Americans for Prosperity, Community Legal Services, Operation Restoration, the People’s Paper Co-op, UnLock Higher Ed, and Prisons to Professionals, the Ortitay/Cephas bill is the next step in ensuring people with past criminal system contact are able to improve their lives through education and access to more career pathways. 

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Removing questions regarding juvenile and criminal histories from college applications is crucial to promoting equitable access to higher education.

These application questions act as a deterrent to  students with records even completing applications in the first place. In a study examining applicants to State University of New York (SUNY) schools with felony convictions, almost twi-thirds of applicants who checked “yes” to the felony conviction question did not complete the application and were never able to be considered for admission.

The SUNY study also found that asking about prior records on applications led to an under-enrollment of students of color in its schools. Here in Pennsylvania where Black people make up 11 percent of our state population but almost 46 percent of our prison population, increasing access to higher education for people with records is necessary to redress racial inequities in the juvenile and criminal systems.

Ensuring campus safety has been the primary justification for criminal history screening, but there is no evidence to suggest that criminal history screening makes campuses safer.

Studies have found that campus safety incidents are almost always – over 96 percent of the time – committed by students who have no criminal record, and tend to be  related to binge drinking, Greek life, and college athletics.

While there is no evidence that campus safety is improved by asking about criminal history, there is plenty showing that participation in higher education is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism.

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In a Texas study, participation in higher education lowered recidivism to 15 percent, 13 percent and under 1 percent for people who had earned an associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree, respectively. In comparison, the general recidivism rate at the time hovered at 63% nationally.

And attaining a college degree will be more crucial than ever due to the pandemic. During COVID-19, the stark contrast between those with advanced degrees and those without became particularly pronounced.

Those who have not obtained a college degree are especially impacted by higher unemployment rates and most likely to say they’ve had trouble paying bills, rent or for medical care.

It is also projected that occupations requiring a college education or advanced degree will continue to grow, whereas employment in occupations requiring a high school education or less will decline.

By passing the Ortitay/Cephas bill, Pennsylvania would join Louisiana, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, and California and become the sixth state to make higher education more accessible to those with prior records.

We urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to continue to lead on second chance legislation and expand educational opportunities for thousands of Pennsylvanians who want to better their lives through education. 

Madelyn Guerra is a social work policy student at the University of Pennsylvania and intern at Community Legal Services. Jamie Gullen is a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services. They write from Philadelphia. 

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