Don’t “Ban the Box,” Use it

On May 8, several student organizations hosted a “Ban the Box” town hall to open discussion about Princeton’s inquiry into applicants’ conviction history within the undergraduate application process. The so-called “Box” is a section of both the Common Application and the Universal College Application that asks applicants if they have ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony (excluding expunged convictions).

Many who advocate for the Box’s removal from college applications point to unequal crime rates and conviction rates across racial and socioeconomic demographics. Their argument maintains that poor applicants of color are both more likely to have committed crimes due to societal circumstances, and more likely to be convicted for a given crime due to inequities in the criminal justice system. Particularly when the relevant crime is ‘victimless,’ as with a misdemeanor drug violation, it is wrong and systemically unfair to require applicants to disclose their criminal histories. Micah Herskind ’19, a member of Students for Prison Education and Reform, stated: “The box is not a metric of criminality. It is a proxy for asking, ‘Are you a person of color? Are you poor?’”

The Board is sympathetic to applicants who worry that minor crimes they committed as teenagers will exclude them from admission to top schools. But it is our judgment that eliminating the Box entirely would be an overreaction and a mistake.

The central question at hand is: Should criminal history be relevant to a college application? Certainly there are crimes, like minor drug violations, that should not be given much weight in the admissions process; but there are just as certainly crimes that should merit consideration. If a student is convicted of sexual or violent assault, for instance, the universities to which he is applying deserve to know of his criminal history for the safety of their other students. To “Ban the Box” entirely would rob schools of this crucial safety measure.

An important consideration is the integrity of the University’s holistic admissions process. True, a middle-class white applicant is less likely than a poor black or Hispanic applicant to tick the Box, but banning the Box is not an effective solution to this disparity. The change should take place within the University administration: admissions officers should acknowledge and account for biases and imperfections in the data provided by the Box. If the University decides that the poor black applicant who is caught with marijuana should not be judged harshly for his crime, then Princeton admissions officers should make their judgments accordingly; and if this applicant has strong credentials elsewhere, then he would still have a high chance of being admitted. Since the University’s admissions process is holistic, there should ideally be no harm in the provision of criminal history information so long as admissions officers understand the relevant societal factors and react judiciously.

As an illustration, consider the SAT. This test is known to be a flawed measurement of intelligence and ability; it strongly correlates with wealth and preparation. And yet, since the SAT does have some merit in predicting college-readiness, universities still accept SAT scores. Rather than merely using the scores as a proxy for intelligence, admissions officers incorporate these data into holistic evaluations. By acknowledging correlations with socioeconomic status, universities can account for SAT biases when making admissions decisions. The Board is not, to be clear, endorsing the approach of all universities in incorporating SAT scores into their judgments. Rather, we ask that you imagine the ideal treatment of SAT scores, and consider that the same principle could be applied to the Box.

In the same vein, if evidence were to come to light that University admissions officers were unable or unwilling to be judicious and holistic in how they incorporate the results of the Box into their admissions decisions, then the Board would adjust its position on this issue—perhaps by proposing a solution in which applicants would be required to report only violent criminal histories. But until such evidence is introduced, the Board will remain confident in the reasonable, holistic judgments that admissions officers make concerning the results of the Box. We can all agree that there is some fair and correct weight that should be given to a certain crime committed by a student of certain circumstances in the admissions process. We can disagree about what that correct weight is in practice; but so long as admissions officers are willing to use that weight in their judgments, the wisest move is to entrust them with the information that the Box provides. Given the considerable benefits of the Box (including weeding out violent applicants), to “ban” it completely would be imprudent.

Paul Draper ‘18 abstained from the writing of this editorial.