ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Most students have to answer this question when they're applying to college - do you have a criminal record? Well, over the weekend, New York University announced a change in how it handles the answer to that question. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has the story.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: The question appears on the Common Application, the website that prospective students use to apply to more than 500 schools across the U.S. and abroad. Most students don't even think about it, but for some applicants it's reason enough not to even bother applying. The changes announced by NYU mean that students will still have the check that box, but admissions officers won't see it right away.
MJ KNOLL-FINN: Applicants would be reviewed without any knowledge of that answer.
GARSD: MJ Knoll-Finn is a vice president for enrollment management at NYU. She says admissions officers are trained to be unbiased, but not knowing the criminal history in that first round of selection will be an added help. After the first round of admissions...
KNOLL-FINN: We're creating a special committee that will be trained to look at the answers to those questions just to see what we found in there and if there was anything of concern.
GARSD: It gives NYU a chance to preserve safety on campus while not ruling out applicants for youthful mistakes.
KNOLL-FINN: We believe in second chances. And the evidence is that, you know, most people who have been convicted of a crime and have done their time and have - are pursuing education and are trying to change their own lives do become very positive members of society.
GARSD: A majority of colleges do ask about criminal histories. Some 20 percent don't, according to the Center for Community Alternatives, an organization that advocates for alternatives to incarceration. Marsha Weissman is the executive director. She says asking about criminal backgrounds has little to do with actual safety concerns.
MARSHA WEISSMAN: People of color are much more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison. What this is really doing is undermining campus diversity goals.
GARSD: Weissman co-authored a report, released earlier this year, that surveyed screening policies at the State University of New York system, which is separate from NYU. The report found nearly two thirds of prospective students who had a felony conviction were discouraged by that one question.
WEISSMAN: When they see the question, they say, I'm not going to get in.
GARSD: NYU's new policy will go into effect for the next admissions cycle. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.
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