Starting in 2018, students applying to State University of New York schools will no longer be asked whether they have a felony conviction.
"The State University of New York is committed to providing all New Yorkers the broadest possible access to quality public higher education, including those who have succeeded through the justice system following a felony conviction," SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall said in a statement.
SUNY leaders voted on Wednesday to ban the yes/no boxes and accompanying question about criminal history from the college system's applications. In voting, the Board of Trustees cited a 2015 analysis that showed nearly two-thirds of applicants who disclosed past felonies dropped out of the application process.
SUNY is the country's largest public university system. (The City University of New York system does not ask applicants about their criminal history.) SUNY started doing so in 1998, and the common application, used by more than 500 schools nationwide, started in 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech shooting.
"Higher education represents an important stepping stone toward personal and professional fulfillment," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement commending the decision. "Every New Yorker deserves a fair and equal chance to achieve their goals."
In recommending the change, SUNY senior vice chancellor Joseph B. Porter cited statistics showing there is no crime rate difference between campuses where officials screen for criminal history and those where they don't.
“We realize this is a big sea change we’re proposing, and controversial,” he told trustees.
A SUNY spokeswoman told The Marshall Project that what advocates call the box will still factor into applications for on-campus housing, internships, and study abroad programs. Data analyzed by the Center for Community Alternatives showed that three out of five SUNY applicants with felony records dropped out of the admissions process, compared to only one in five applicants without records. Also, even though the screening is generally oriented towards scrutinizing ex-felons, approaches vary widely from school to school, with one community college near Buffalo demanding a letter on court letterhead explaining arrests that didn't result in convictions, while other schools require records directly from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, even though the agency only releases such documents to the person they're about.
All SUNY campuses currently require applicants with felony convictions to appear before a committee and answer questions about their record.
The deterrent effect on applicants with records particularly affects African Americans, who are incarcerated at rates massively disproportionate to the total population, in New York and around the country. The SUNY study found that at the community college level, black applicants with felony convictions outnumbered black applicants without them 3-1.
New York University did away with the felony conviction question last month, but still asks about convictions related to "violent incidents."
In the workplace, activist campaigns to ban the box may have an ugly downside rooted in the United States' intractable problem with racism. In a 2015 study, scholars from Princeton and the University of Michigan sent out job applications to employers in New York and New Jersey, which barred criminal history questions on applications that year, under fake names.
Some applications were assigned criminal histories and some not, and some were assigned stereotypically black and stereotypically white names. Prior to the ban going into effect, all those with criminal histories were less likely to get calls back. But when the regulations took effect, employers became less likely to call back all black-seeming applicants, apparently regarding all African Americans as potential criminals.