Pre-Admission Background Checks May Not Prevent On-Campus Crime

By Catherine Groux
Posted April 17, 2013 11:00 AM

Pre-admissions screening does not predict campus crime.
Pre-admissions screening does not predict campus crime.

As stories of on-campus violence have dominated the news in recent years, several schools are striving to do their part to prevent these tragedies by adding criminal background checks or pre-admission screening questions to the admissions process. In fact, even the Common Application, which is accepted at 488 colleges across the nation, asks students if they have "ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation" at their high school or have "ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime." Students who answer "yes" to either of these questions must then attach a note explaining the situation.

Carol Runyan, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, said that more than half of all American colleges currently ask applicants similar questions about their criminal histories or require criminal background checks during the admissions process. While this is done in an effort to curb on-campus crime, Runyan and her colleagues recently found that these methods may not be efficient.

In surveying nearly 7,000 students at a large university, Runyan and her team discovered that only 3.3% of college seniors who engaged in misconduct reported that they had criminal histories in the admissions process. On the other hand, only 8.5% of applicants who said they had criminal histories on their applications were charged with misconduct while working toward a bachelor's degree.

Still, Runyan acknowledged that students who engage in criminal activity during college are often more likely to have done so before college as well. Despite this correlation, the screening tools currently used by colleges fail to detect which of these students will actually participate in misconduct as undergraduates.

However, even if schools mastered their pre-admission screening processes to determine which students are more likely to commit crimes on campus, Runyan said they would need to be mindful of discrimination. Oftentimes, affluent students can afford to have their early criminal records expunged, while low-income individuals, including many minorities, cannot. As Runyan explained, this should not mean low-income or minority students have a smaller chance of being accepted to college as their peers.

"Based on our work, I cannot say with confidence that colleges should stop asking about criminal backgrounds, but I would use caution in thinking that this is the best strategy to address crime on campus," Runyan said. "We need to ensure a safe and supportive environment for all students rather than limiting college access for students who may need extra help."

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