© 2019 Robert Stewart.

Criminal Records & College Admissions

A typical college application criminal history question.

My dissertation, Criminal Records & College Admissions, sits at the intersection of the sociologies of punishment and higher education. I use a mixed methods approach to examine the use of criminal history information in the college admissions process. I use this context as a case to study criminal stigma and discrimination, exclusion, and the production of citizenship. Preliminary findings from this research have been cited in various reports, including by The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Brookings Institution, and The Marshall Project.

My lead-authored Criminology article (pdf) features a field experiment on the college admissions process, producing the first estimates of the effect of a criminal record on college admissibility for white and Black young men. Because the college admissions context requires official academic documentation, I designed what I refer to as a “modified” correspondence audit - modified because it uses real records that are matched, as opposed to fabricated records. I recruited real people with real academic records and real criminal history information to serve as tester applicants. I sent matched pairs of tester applications to a national sample of non-elite four-year colleges, randomly assigning whether the tester pair would apply as Black or white students. Consistent with criminal record discrimination research in the labor market, I find that applicants with felony records were rejected at three times the rate of the control testers when they were required to disclose their record, though I find smaller race differences than in employment. Moreover, colleges with higher levels of reported crime were more cautious about accepting applicants with records, particularly Black males with felony records.

In the next section of the dissertation, I look underneath the admissions decision to consider how discrimination and exclusion are exercised through the process itself. Applying to hundreds of colleges over a ten-month period produced a rich source of qualitative data, including thousands of emails, postal mail, and other materials. I use these data to uncover mechanisms of differential treatment and discrimination within the process. The experiment’s paired design allows me to directly compare the admissions process for applicants with records to applicants without records within the same college. Most colleges do not outright disqualify applicants with criminal records and thus appear inclusive in their application language and formal processes. However, in practice the processes themselves are exclusionary. Faced with sizable administrative burdens and apprehensive or fastidious college officials, applicants with records--particularly those not versed in the hidden curriculum of admissions--are pushed out of the process through attrition.

Admissions decisions letters.

In a third paper from my dissertation I draw on the emerging concept of “carceral citizenship,” an alternate form of political membership experienced by system-impacted people, to explore how punishment is arbitrarily exercised through third parties. I demonstrate that, once identified as a “criminal,” the college shifts toward a crime-control posture that asserts a variety of expectations and responsibilities onto the applicant. Applicants with records are expected to forgo privacy by allowing their lives to be “read”; compelled to frame their criminal history through the lens of redemption and giving back, and must acquiesce to a range of demands to gain access to college. Thus, the contours of carceral citizenship and criminal stigma are produced and reproduced throughout the process.

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