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All colleges should remove this barrier

This box on SUNY's college application shows a

This box on SUNY's college application shows a criminal background question that will no longer appear after July 1. Credit: The Marshall Project

Applying to college requires providing a colossal amount of information. There’s one question that, more than most, causes many would-be students to give up: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Checking “yes” on the box while applying to one of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses has meant receiving another slew of paperwork and inquiries — some of which cross the lines of privacy or are impossible to answer, according to a study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a prisoners rights organization. The group counted 38 additional documents the schools have required felons to provide.

At that point, two out of three felons give up. An admissions committee never has a chance to learn the details of the crime, or whether the person has put that chapter in his or her past. It’s like saying a person’s future can rise only as high as the worst mistake he or she has made.

As a society that wants to help people to reintegrate after serving time, with a fair chance of success, that’s not good enough.

Starting July 1, the beginning of the fall 2018 admissions cycle, SUNY will no longer ask that question before considering students for admission. That makes SUNY the nation’s largest higher education system to reverse course. Some public university systems, such as California’s and The City University of New York, don’t ask about criminal history.

SUNY made this decision after considering the applicant drop-off rate reported in the Center for Community Alternatives’ recent study. More than 86 other higher education systems and institutions around the country also have committed to distance their admissions decisions from criminal records, as part of the Obama administration’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge in favor of expanding college opportunity for Americans who’ve served time behind bars.

This comes at a time of increasing fear that overpopulated prisons are simply turning out better-trained criminals who cycle back into the justice system at a high cost, both in terms of dollars and wasted lives.

Only after a student is accepted will a SUNY school ask about felony convictions, for the purposes of approving campus housing, clinical or field experiences, internships or study abroad programs. SUNY’s information technology folks have even figured out how to hide the “felony” question when Common Application users apply for admission.

SUNY’s decision is laudable, especially because getting a higher education is one of the best ways for former inmates to increase their chances of staying out of trouble.

College and Community Fellowship, a Manhattan-based group that helps formerly incarcerated women obtain college degrees, says 66 percent of incarcerated non-degree earners nationwide are likely to return to prison within three years of release. The likelihood drops to 5.6 percent with a bachelor’s degree and less than 1 percent for people who earn a master’s.

New Hour for Women and Children-LI, a nonprofit based in Brentwood, is trying to replicate CCF’s program on Long Island. While SUNY’s strides to “ban the box” asking about felonies will help many here, particularly at community colleges, it won’t apply to private colleges and universities such as Hofstra, Adelphi, Touro, LIU Post or St. Joseph’s.

Efforts to obtain details on their admissions policies went unanswered. Only New York Institute of Technology responded; it doesn’t ask for criminal histories from applicants.

Bills in the State Legislature that would have banned the box for all New York colleges didn’t get any traction this year. This is something lawmakers should reconsider for the next session.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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