New York University will be making it easier for applicants with criminal records to gain admission to the school: NYU announced at the beginning of August it will now ignore the Common Application’s questions about criminal history. Instead, the school will ask more specific questions that focus only on violent incidents. The idea is both to give people "a second chance" and for the university to live up to "its mission as an engine of social mobility," said MJ Knoll-Finn, a vice president of the university, in a press release.
Giving people a second chance is a noble goal. President Barack Obama, in commuting the sentences of 214 federal prisoners this month, said we need to do more to "understand the human stories behind this problem." Ensuring that students from difficult backgrounds who have been convicted of small offenses have access to education after fulfilling their sentences is an important part of reintegrating them into society. Programs like the Bard Prison Initiative actually provide a liberal arts education to inmates, giving them a leg up when they are released.
But NYU has changed its policies not simply for the good of these applicants, but because it wants a more racially diverse campus. When the school began the process of changing this policy last year, Knoll-Finn cited "concerns being raised on a national level about the sometimes disparate impact of the criminal justice system." Urged on by the Department of Education, many universities are considering dropping questions about criminal records on the grounds that asking those questions means admitting fewer racial minorities. In order to increase diversity, the logic now goes, we need to increase the population of students who have been convicted of crimes.
In "Beyond the Box," a "Resource Guide for Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals," the Education Department notes, "Disparities in the criminal justice system, ranging from arrests to sentencing decisions, disproportionately impact individuals of color, and, in turn, disproportionately require students of color to respond to questions about criminal history."
To hear the beyond-the-boxers tell it, institutional racism is to blame for the large number of minority youth arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. They fail to mention the fact that African Americans commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Nor are the disparities just a result of over-aggressive drug prosecutions: Even if we released all the people in jail for low-level drug offenses, the percentage of the incarcerated who are minorities would barely budge. Nor do the activists at the Department of Education mention that many people convicted of nonviolent offenses have actually bargained themselves down from the original violent charges on which they were arrested.
But let's leave all that aside for a moment. Isn't it just a bit offensive to say that in order to increase the percentage of racial minorities on campus we have to start dipping into a population of criminals? And who exactly is benefiting from this policy anyway? Is it likely to help minorities or hurt?
Affirmative action, of course, started out as a strategy to ensure that education and employment opportunities were open to all qualified applicants, regardless of whether they had the right "connections." As Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. note in their book, Mismatch, universities in the 1960s "reached out to counselors at black high schools in places like Harlem or Boston's Roxbury district … who had always assumed, with reason, that elite private colleges would never take their students seriously."
But then, as Taylor and Sander note, "university leaders realized that outreach alone would bring no more than a small number of blacks to their campuses." The next step then was lowering academic standards. Even while university administrators insisted that they were not sacrificing quality in order to get a more diverse student body, the results were clear. A 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, found that blacks were receiving the equivalent of a 310-point bonus on their SATs when elite colleges were weighing their applications. (By contrast, one recent Harvard study of 30 elite colleges found that "legacy" applicants—often disdained as receiving a kind of old-boys-network preference—actually had slightly higher average SAT scores than the overall pool of applicants.) As Taylor and Sander write, "racial preferences are not remotely close to being the 'tie-breakers' they are sometimes claimed to be."
And there are terrible effects for those minority kids sent to schools for which they are underqualified: Graduation rates suffer; and even those on track to graduate are often forced into less demanding (and less remunerative) degrees than they might have pursued at schools better matched with their academic skills.
But most damaging, affirmative action has led many students to make the toxic assumption that minority students are not as capable. As NYU's very own Jonathan Haidt wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers." Admitting, in the name of diversity, students who are even less qualified "is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus."
Now imagine what would happen if white and Asian students on campus had the impression that not only were their black peers less likely to have performed well on standardized tests or on their high school report cards, but were also more likely to have criminal records.
We can join the campus chorus in denouncing as racist those impressions. Or we can do something that improves college life for minorities. And that means recognizing the root cause of those unspoken attitudes: In their quest for campus diversity, college administrators are willing to sacrifice the academic success of minority students and to produce more racial tension on campus than already exists.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is author of the book The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.