Working Paper Draft

People who have been incarcerated face many barriers to full participation in university and college life as students and employees, including logistical, financial, informal, immigration-specific, and ideological obstacles. Removing or at least diminishing these obstacles is essential for any college or university that has committed to making their institution more diverse, inclusive, accessible, and equitable.  Ending discrimination against post-incarcerated people can also strengthen the university by increasing campus presence of people from underrepresented groups and admitting often highly qualified and motivated students and employees who were previously barred.  

There is no downside to removing these barriers.  Empirical studies show no increase in crime rates on campuses where formerly-incarcerated applicants are included.  As the Association of American Colleges and Universities wrote in 2018, “the evidence does not indicate that campuses are safer as a result of criminal history screening. In fact, because education has been associated with lower recidivism rates, educating those with past criminal justice involvement may have broad positive effects for society.”[1]  The 2018 decision to remove the criminal history box from the Common Application for admissions signals a broader shift in university policy and practice in this area.

The American Studies Association recognizes that incarceration is a monumental civil rights issue today.  We urge universities, as progressive workplaces and institutions dedicated to education as a civic good, to model best practices to diminish the intense discrimination faced by formerly-incarcerated people within their communities and beyond.

Logistical Issues

Logistical issues are some of the most insidious barriers people who have been formerly incarcerated encounter in their quest to matriculate or work on university campuses.  Key obstacles include a disciplinary or felony history “box” on application forms, pointed questions in interviews or interactions with campus personnel, and online application processes.

Universities can do many things to address logistical issues.  They can remove questions about criminal convictions from applications and minimize background checks, open the admissions process, expand available information through print materials, and designate representatives to liaise with people in prison or recently released.  They can work to facilitate transitions from prison education programs and improve the immediate support formerly-incarcerated students and workers encounter on campus.

Financial issues are a large portion of the logistical barriers formerly incarcerated people encounter in quests to join campus communities.  The criminal justice system disproportionately targets the poor and marginalized, while both the process and the outcomes of that system impoverish and marginalize them further.  Bail and court-imposed fines and fees can be ruinous for entire families; incarceration interrupts schooling and careers; and the collateral consequences of conviction—including restrictions on employment, housing, childcare, and financial aid—act as lifelong millstones around millions of people’s necks. 

While full subsidies for all formerly-incarcerated students may not be practical for most institutions, there are many steps they could easily and immediately take.  They could provide application fee waivers, remove restrictions on funding, create scholarships, stipends, work-study positions and assistantships, and eliminate campus work restrictions for formerly-incarcerated students and workers.

Informal Issues

A series of informal issues can also confront the incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated person hoping to work or study at a university.  Prison employees, for example, can thwart college programs in prisons. Parole agents can put up barriers to university participation by denying transfer of residence, placing conditions on movement, imposing curfews, or issuing outright denials.  Universities can be incompletely or poorly accessible to formerly-incarcerated people because they lack connections to campus prior to application or enrollment, familiarity and a sense of belonging, friend and community participation in campus life, and access to support and advocacy.  University reputations can repel or intimidate applicants depending on their public images, and pathways to re-enter education can be poorly designated or lacking.

Informal issues can be addressed if universities strive to maintain, at the broadest level, race and gender equity commitments; hire faculty and staff with justice-involved backgrounds; support social justice and diversity centers to include formerly incarcerated in their mission statements; and include—boast, even—of the number of formerly incarcerated individuals they serve along with the statistics of other “disadvantaged” populations.  Universities can include the currently incarcerated in the commitment to social justice by holding college classes in prisons or holding seminars or lecture series to provide educational experiences for the incarcerated; designate clear pathways for the formerly-incarcerated to enter campus as workers and students; and partner with other pipeline and pathways institutions to connect to broader re-entry support for housing, employment and health.

Immigration-Related Issues

Immigrants who have been incarcerated, detained, or charged face an additional series of barriers which can compound all these difficulties in accessing higher education workplaces or study opportunities.  For documented immigrants, immigration status and criminal justice involvement intersect to inflict a double burden, while undocumented immigrants who are also formerly-incarcerated face the stress of knowing that they face deportation if these factors are discovered.

Universities could take the following steps to address immigration-related issues:  make sure hiring units across the university are aware that legal permanent immigrants and immigrants in processing status are eligible to work, and that discrimination based on immigration status is illegal; fundraise, endow, and set up scholarships and awards earmarked specifically for non-US citizens; keep the immigration status of students and employees private, like all other educational details under FERPA; and support immigrant students and workers in visible ways to create a culture in which discrimination is not tolerated.

Ideological Issues

Finally, at a deep level, our society views incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people with suspicion, fear, and contempt.  Not only do these negative attitudes feed support for restrictive policies, but shame and stigma can create a vicious cycle in which incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people internalize negative beliefs and become less likely to see themselves as students or professionals.[4]  Even when there is some assistance on campus for formerly-incarcerated people, it can fall short of a culture of support.  The ideological landscape includes the race and class factors that already structure incarceration.  Excluding people with criminal histories from universities exacerbates racism, as The Atlantic explained in 2016:  “These kinds of practices really are de facto forms of race-based discrimination, because people of color are disproportionately impacted by these policies.”[7]

This arena is one in which universities could demonstrate the most far-reaching leadership and policy innovation.  Universities are in a position to challenge the dominant narrative through scholarship and study that asks transformative questions.  They can make sure their libraries stock and showcase books written by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated scholars, and provide university platforms for alternate narratives to be shared.  They can publicly acknowledge the importance of having formerly incarcerated people on campus as students and employees, cultivate critical mass through pointed programs of support, and organize groups and promote spaces for formerly incarcerated faculty and staff.  They can add “criminal justice involvement” to affirmative action or diversity statements, and craft non-discrimination and protected status clauses that weaken the use of background checks regardless of the presence of “the box” on admissions applications.

The American Studies Association encourages universities across the US to embrace these best practices for the good of individual universities, the academy at large, and society overall.


[1] Lynn Pasquerella, “Expanding the American Dream: Destigmatizing Past Criminal Justice Involvement,” Association of American Colleges & Universities, May 1, 2018, online at (Accessed 6/20/18); see also Malgorzata J. V. Olszewska, “Undergraduate admission application as a campus crime mitigation measure: Disclosure of applicants' disciplinary background information and its relation to campus crime” (Ed.D. dissertation, East Carolina University, 2007); Center for Community Alternatives, The Use of Criminal Records in College Applications Reconsidered (Syracuse, NY: CCA, 2010), online at (Accessed 6/20/18); and the sequel, Center for Community Alternatives, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition (Syracuse, NY: CCA, March 2015), online at (Accessed 6/20/18).

[2] The US DOE reports that the Common Application “in 2006 began requiring students to indicate if they have been ‘adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime’”; United States Department of Education, Beyond the Box Resource Guide: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals (May 9, 2016), (Accessed 6/20/18), p. 10.

[3] Andre Perry, “A Case for Educational Reparations for Formerly Incarcerated People,” The Root 4/6/18, online at (Accessed 6/19/18).

[4] Greene, C.A. 2013. Checking the Box: Enduring the Stigma of Applying to Graduate School after Incarceration. Available at (Accessed 6/20/18).

[5] Jaschik, Scott. “Common App Drops Criminal History Question,” Inside Higher Ed, August 8, 2018, (Accessed 8/9/2018)

[6] need note

[7] Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “‘Ban the Box’ Goes to College,” Atlantic, April 29, 2016, (Accessed 6/20/18).

[8] Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “‘Ban the Box’ Goes to College,” Atlantic, April 29, 2016, (Accessed 6/20/18).