How Discipline Policies Can Hold Students Back From College

How Discipline Policies Can Hold Students Back From College
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As hundreds of thousands of students scrambled to submit their college applications by the end of last year, many probably did not realize that there is one factor that could sink their chances of acceptance and it is largely out of their control: their discipline record. Even minor in-class suspensions can hinder students’ ability to apply to and attend college.

The Department of Education is currently considering rescinding Obama administration guidance addressing disparate rates of school discipline. This guidance encourages schools to steer away from overly harsh policies that unnecessarily remove students from school and warns schools and districts that over-disciplining students of color or students with disabilities could be investigated as discrimination.

According to a report from the Center for Community Alternatives, 73 percent of American colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and 89 percent of those use that information in their admissions decisions. Over 700 of these colleges and universities use the Common Application, which requires students to check “yes” or “no” on a disciplinary violation. A review from the Center for American Progress found that only five of the twenty largest public universities using the Common Application had a written policy posted on their website explaining how the discipline question is taken into account for admissions, and only two universities provided the specific criteria they weigh in admissions. While some admissions departments explained that they consider the context of the infraction—including the harmfulness of the behavior if it was remedied and if it reoccurred—admissions officers have few accountability mechanisms without a written, formal policy.

In the short term, unnecessary, exclusionary discipline simply keeps students out of school. However, a “suspension,” “removal” or “dismissal” leaves a stain on a high school transcript forever, and these records can be a major factor in college admissions decisions. Ironically, student records remain tarnished by a range of infractions while over 150 cities and counties around the country have banned employers from asking about candidates’ criminal records in job applications.

In addition, the phrasing on the Common Application is incredibly open-ended, irresponsibly lumping together “probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion” as “disciplinary history.” Not only do the seriousness of infractions vary drastically between “removal” and “expulsion” but students are also not given the opportunity to provide an explanation for their infraction.

The mere inclusion of a disciplinary history question also disproportionately impacts communities of color, considering that the suspension disparity between African American and white students is three-to-one. Checking “yes” on the disciplinary question is just another way institutional practices affect the economic and educational mobility of young persons of color.

Moreover, admissions offices often do not have established, transparent processes for how they consider applicants’ disciplinary history.  The Center for Community Alternatives’ survey found that only 25 percent of colleges that collect disciplinary information have formal, written policies to inform admissions staff, and only 30 percent of schools have trained their admissions staff to interpret disciplinary violation findings.

As the Department of Education considers rescinding the guidance on school discipline, universities can take matters into their own hands to reduce the impact of students’ disciplinary history. According to the Center for Community Alternatives’ survey, nineteen percent of universities choose not to use disciplinary information in admissions decision making. While schools may not have the ability to change the format of the Common Application, they can choose to omit the data in their admissions process.

In addition, universities should formalize or adjust their policies for how they consider disciplinary infractions in admission, posting their disciplinary policies online not only to be transparent with potential applicants but also to inform students that past disciplinary incidents do not necessarily exclude them from admission.

Without formal and publicly posted policies to ensure admissions accountability and transparency, disciplinary questions will continue to restrict diverse and college-ready applicants while also widening attainment gaps as a result of the disparate impacts of disciplinary standards.

Sarah Shapiro is a research assistant for K-12 Education at American Progress.

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