Criminal records should not be used to keep people out of college

Stanley Andrisse, a formerly incarcerated person, says removing the criminal history question from the Common Application is a good step but more needs to be done to give people with a criminal record a second chance

August 22, 2018
A prisoner holding the bars of a cell
Source: iStock

From next year, the Common Application – an online form that enables students to apply to the 800 or so colleges that use it – will no longer ask students about their criminal pasts.

As a formerly incarcerated person who is now an endocrinologist and professor at two world-renowned medical institutions – Johns Hopkins Medicine and Howard University College of Medicine – I believe this move is a positive one. People’s prior convictions should not be held against them in their pursuit of higher learning.

While I am enthusiastic about the decision to remove the criminal history question from the Common Application, I also believe more must be done to remove the barriers that exist between formerly incarcerated individuals, such as myself, and higher education.

I make this argument not only as a formerly incarcerated person who now teaches aspiring medical doctors, but also as an advocate for people with criminal convictions. The organisation I lead, From Prison Cells to PhD, helped push for the change on the Common Application.

There was a time not so long ago when some in the legal system believed I did not deserve a chance. With three felony convictions, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking as a prior and persistent career criminal. My prosecuting attorney once stated that I had no hope for change.

Today, I am Dr Stanley Andrisse. As a professor at Johns Hopkins and Howard universities, I now help train students who want to be doctors. I would say that I have changed. Education was transformative.

The US needs more of the transformative power of education. The country incarcerates more people and at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. 

Education provides opportunities for people with criminal records to move beyond their experience with the penal system and reach their full potential. The more education a person has, the higher their income. Similarly, the more education a person has, the less likely they are to return to prison.

I had a bachelor’s degree by the time I went to prison but never got the chance to use it. Then something tragic happened while I was serving time that prompted me to see the need to further my education. My father had his legs amputated as a result of diabetes complications. He fell into a coma and lost his battle with Type 2 diabetes. I was devastated. This experience made me want to learn more about how to fight this disease.

While incarcerated, I applied to six biomedical graduate programmes. I was rejected from all but one – Saint Louis University. Notably, I had a mentor from Saint Louis who served on the admission committee. Without that personal connection, I’m not sure I would ever have had a second chance.

Based on the difficulty I experienced going from prison to becoming a college professor, I believe there are things that should be done to remove barriers for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people who wish to pursue higher education.

One of those barriers is cost. When the government removed Pell funding from prisons by issuing the “tough on crime” Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the vast majority of colleges offering courses in prison stopped. 

Because of the federal ban on receiving Pell grants while incarcerated, most of those serving time cannot afford to take college courses while in prison. 

The Obama administration took a step toward trying to restore Pell grants for those in prison with the Second Chance Pell pilot. The programme has given more than 12,000 incarcerated individuals across the nation the chance to use Pell grants toward college courses in prison.

Through the programme, 67 colleges and universities are working with more than 100 prisons to provide college courses to the incarcerated.

Under the Trump administration, this programme is at risk of being discontinued at the end of 2018.

Another barrier is allowing prior convictions to count against individuals in their pursuit of higher learning. Federal policymakers could increase opportunities by removing Question 23 on the federal student aid form that asks if applicants have been convicted of drug crimes. 

A 2015 study found that nearly 66 percent of would-be undergraduates who disclosed a conviction on their college application did not finish their application.

This question also disproportionately affects people of colour, since people of colour are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the question runs the risk of making formerly incarcerated people feel isolated and less valuable than those who have never been in trouble with the law.

When people who have been incarcerated begin to feel like they don’t belong and higher education is not for them, they are unlikely to realise their potential. It will be as if we have locked them up and thrown away the key.

This is a shorter version of an article that first appeared on The Conversation. 

Stanley Andrisse is an assistant professor at the Howard University College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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