School Climate & Safety

Most Colleges Weigh Student Discipline Records in Admissions

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim — May 29, 2015 6 min read

In a little-known practice that could harm students’ chances of getting into the college of their choice, the vast majority of colleges and universities use disciplinary records to help determine whether to accept or reject a student’s application, according to a new study.

The study, released on Friday, was conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York-based organization that advocates on behalf of students who’ve had prior court involvement. It found that roughly 3 out of 4 colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and that 89 percent of those institutions use the information to make admission decisions.

The study, titled “Education Suspended: The Use of High School Disciplinary Records in College Admissions,” also found that half of all high schools disclose such information to colleges, even though they are not required to do so.

Defenders of the use of disciplinary records in college admission decisions say it is an important way for universities to keep students with a history of behavioral problems off their campuses as they build incoming classes of freshmen. But opponents say high school disciplinary records have little predictive value, needlessly stigmatize students for infractions that are often minor, and reduce their opportunities for higher learning.

Sharing Discipline Data

In a national survey of college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors, researchers found that half of the guidance counselors share students’ discipline records with colleges.

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Source: Center for Community Alternatives

They also argue that the practice is a civil rights issue because of the well-documented fact that students of color and students with disabilities face disciplinary actions in K-12 schools at disproportionately higher rates than other students.

Officials from the CCA are calling on college admissions officers to stop asking for the disciplinary files of students and for high school officials to stop providing them. And they are appealing to high schools’ self interest to further their cause.

“High schools do not benefit from disclosing the information because it may limit access to higher education for their students,” Emily NaPier, a senior research associate and spokesperson for the CCA, told Education Week via e-mail.

Strategy for Change

Ms. NaPier said the CCA’s hope is to induce grassroots pressure from students, parents, educators, and others to halt the practice of using disciplinary records in admissions decisions, but may seek changes in the law if schools and colleges put up a fight.

“Our report is the first step in identifying this problem so that people can take up the issue and organize around it to push for relatively easy administrative changes that would solve it,” Ms. NaPier said. “If it turns out that there is significant resistance from schools and colleges to change their policies, then we would pursue legislative remedies.”

Some resistance in the world of higher education is already evident, though.

Todd Rinehart, the chairman of the admissions practices committee of the Arlington, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, said he not only disagrees with the recommendation for high schools to stop providing disciplinary records to colleges, but that he wishes more high schools would disclose disciplinary records to the colleges that seek them. NACAC collaborated with CCA to administer the survey of colleges that serves as the foundation for the CCA study.

“The school districts currently not reporting their disciplinary infractions—they should be,” said Mr. Rinehart, who is also the associate vice chancellor of enrollment and the director of admissions at the University of Denver in Colorado.

“And colleges should also be requesting this information,” Mr. Rinehart continued. “When we’re doing a holistic review, we’re really shaping a community. We should have every bit of information that’s possible.”

Mr. Rinehart said the disciplinary cases revealed to colleges often involve students caught with alcohol at prom and seldom result in their applications being denied.

On the other hand, Mr. Rinehart said: “If the student has done something severe and has a pattern of bad behavior, in my mind, the college or university has the right to know that and not offer admission.”

“It doesn’t mean they’re denying the student [access] to higher education,” Mr. Rinehart said. “It is a privilege to be admitted to individual institutions.”

Mr. Rinehart said students with serious disciplinary issues seldom have stellar academic records and were likely to have been rejected anyway. He did not dispute that low-income students of color may be more apt to have disciplinary files due to unfair discipline practices but said that is no reason not to seek the information.

“The solution isn’t to say, ‘Let’s not ask the question,’” Mr. Rinehart said. “Let’s address the inequities and the inconsistencies.”

Emerging Issue

But the CCA says rates of rejection based on disciplinary records need to be quantified and studied further.

“In the absence of data that show how many students are accepted or rejected once they disclose a disciplinary record, it is not enough for college admissions counselors to offer assurances that a school disciplinary record is not likely to impede admission to college,” the group’s report states. “Moreover, vague assurances will do little to assuage the fears of students who are the most vulnerable to school suspension—poor students of color, whose life experiences have subjected them to exclusion in many social domains.”

Jason Q. Sinocruz, a former admissions officer at Stanford University who now works as a staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, said there is little doubt that disciplinary data has a negative impact on a student’s college application.

“Whenever there is a disciplinary record on file, that application is almost immediately flagged for a review, if not sent straight to denial,” Mr. Sinocruz said. Even training for admissions officers cannot undo the damage that is done when a student or school official checks a box indicating that the student has been disciplined in the past.

“There’s a bias effect,” Mr. Sinocruz said. “If I see a student has been disciplined three times for ‘insubordination,’ ‘disrespect,’ some of these categories that are overly vague and capture very minor incidents, it’s hard not to look at the students as somehow disrespectful, even if it was for a minor thing.

“A lot of times the categories that are used are much stronger, much more punitive-sounding than what actually happened.”

Mr. Sinocruz said the Advancement Project is currently working with the Denver school system to get the district to purge students’ disciplinary records on an annual basis and to create and publicize a way for parents to seek the removal of discipline records that are less than one year old in order to prevent the information from hurting their children’s college applications.

In the interim, the Advancement Project is working with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), a Denver-based nonprofit, to get parents to be proactive about clearing up their children’s disciplinary records before they apply to college.

“Don’t let your discipline record damage your life opportunities,” declares a flier from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos. “Expunge records before applying to college or other key decisions.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a freelance writer living in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week

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