Everywhere you go, there you are

Like it or not, our past tends to follow us around. Wherever we go, our past is still out there. It’s hard to hide from it. There are some things we are more than happy to chat about, like recounting the story of a good deed, or perhaps when we won an award or were acknowledged for a great effort.

And then there are things in our past we would rather not have follow us around, like the time we lost a job, or failed a big test or got arrested for something foolish. Even those dumb tweets we made as teenagers can still pop us and haunt us, as some professional athletes could attest. And, while most people are forgiving and willing to forget and offer a second chance, others are not. Some would argue it’s simply a matter of being held accountable for our actions.

Perhaps there is a middle ground. We can’t wash away some parts of our past, but we don’t have to let them ruin our future, either.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was one of three senators who introduced the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, new legislation that would encourage colleges and universities to remove criminal and juvenile justice questions from their admissions applications and give more Americans a chance to earn a higher education.

“Everyone deserves a fair chance to go to college and succeed,” Schatz said. “This bill is about tearing down the barriers that keep people from pursuing a better life through higher education.”

Today, most colleges and universities ask criminal justice, juvenile justice, and/or school disciplinary questions in their admissions processes, according to a Schatz press release. Earlier this year, Schatz sent letters to the “Big Six” higher education associations and The Common Application asking them to remove criminal history questions from their admissions processes.

As a result, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Community Colleges urged their members to remove these questions. And recently, The Common Application decided to remove criminal history questions from their form starting in August 2019. The bill would assist colleges and universities as they change their policies by providing assistance in the form of guidance and training.

One of the senators who co-authored the bill argued that requiring prospective college students to answer application questions about old criminal or juvenile records is an unnecessary barrier to educational pursuits. He said formerly incarcerated individuals should be allowed to rebuild and move forward with their lives, and get a college education.

We agree everyone should have a chance to start over and rebuild and, yes, go to college. While yes, it can make it difficult to go to college if you have a criminal record, it does not make it impossible. It does not mean you won’t be able to find a good-paying job. It doesn’t mean you can’t start a new life.

We understand colleges are not bound to follow this act. It’s up to them, which makes it seem even more unnecessary.

The problem with this proposal is that it essentially wants to make your past disappear. As much as we would like, it never does. And trying to hide it, discouraging others from asking about it, on the premise that it makes our lives more difficult today, is a weak argument.

The Schatz press release had this to say in that regard: “About 70 million Americans have some type of criminal record. That record, which shows up on all routine background checks, makes it more difficult for those individuals to go to college, find a good-paying job, and rebuild their lives. And many with a criminal background fail to complete their application once they reach the criminal history questions, knowing responding to the questions would greatly diminish their chances of admission.

It goes on to say that studies have shown that application rejection rates for individuals with convictions can be as high as 12 to 13 percentage points more than for those without.

We are not arguing that a person’s past mistakes should and can be used against them. We are not arguing they shouldn’t be given every opportunity to succeed. But we are saying that when we try to hide something in our past, when we try to keep things from college admissions and potential employers, those are the very things that eventually emerge to affect us even more than had we been upfront in the first place. College applicants should expect to be asked about their past, be prepared to explain it, and be prepared to offer how they have overcame past errors. Not everyone will give them that opportunity to create a better future, but with enough effort, someone will.

Some would say our view on this issue is wrong.

“There are still far too many barriers to a high quality higher education, especially for students who have been impacted by the justice system. The Beyond the Box Act would reduce some of these unnecessary barriers, particularly for low-income students and students of color who are disproportionately impacted. We’re proud to stand with Sen. Schatz as we work toward a more equitable and just higher education for all students,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at The Education Trust.

We agree the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act is well intended.

But rather than encourage accountability, to be open about past mistakes and encourage people to work hard to overcome challenges, this act encourages them to keep silent. They will likely live in fear, hoping no one finds out what is in their past. We have to question if that’s really the path we want to send them down.


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