A Fresh Start: The Evolving Use of Juvenile Records in College Admissions

Questions about criminal and juvenile records in the college application process are common and frequently fail to account for the unique characteristics of juvenile justice systems. The ways in which colleges and universities ask about juvenile records often encourage applicants to disclose information in spite of statutory protections. These questions fly in the face of the public policy underlying a range of legal safeguards that are intended to help individuals with records from juvenile systems in moving forward and receiving a second chance.

In recent years, a series of legislative and institutional changes have begun to restrict how colleges and universities may ask about criminal and juvenile records. Four states have passed laws limiting how criminal history may be used in the admissions process. The Common Application has moved to make asking about criminal history optional, and now gives institutions more flexibility in deciding how to phrase criminal history questions. This Article presents a first-of-its-kind empirical analysis of how the more than 800 U.S. schools that use the Common Application, and schools in the first states to restrict asking about criminal history, have responded to these changes. While these reforms have affected how frequently colleges and universities ask about criminal history, they continue to leave the door open for some postsecondary institutions to push applicants to disclose juvenile records.

The growing movement to restrict use of criminal history in the college admissions process presents a critical opportunity to reconsider the role that postsecondary systems should play in supporting the rehabilitative goals of juvenile justice systems. To that end, this Article concludes by providing recommendations for legislative and institutional language that can more effectively ensure that individuals with juvenile records are given a true second chance and a meaningful opportunity to earn postsecondary degrees.