Education For People With A Criminal Record In The US

A criminal record, or RAP sheet (Record of Arrests and Prosecutions), is documentation of your history with criminal justice agencies at the state and federal levels. A state criminal record contains information on your arrests, indictments, convictions, and incarcerations for committing an offense within that state. 

State criminal records are publicly available through the state police or the state Department of Public Safety. On the other hand, a federal criminal record shows your criminal history across several states in the US. The Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains this criminal record, which is available to interested persons under the Freedom of Information Act. Thus, the public, prospective employers, and educational institutions can obtain your criminal history per government regulations.   

Although the public availability of criminal records serves to protect the public, it has consequences for the individuals with such records. Generally, offenders face barriers to jobs, housing, and other socio-economic opportunities after completing their sentence. And for persons who wish to get an education after a stint in prison, the same barriers exist because private and public institutions regularly perform criminal background checks on prospective applicants. 

Legislations Fail To Address Criminal Records And Education

Recognizing the barriers that having a criminal record poses, state and federal governments enact legislation that prevents employers from discriminating against individuals with criminal records. 

Legislations like the Fair Chance Act at the Federal level, aka Ban the Box at the state level, reduce employers’ accessibility to a person’s criminal records until later in the job application process. 

An employer cannot ask for a person’s criminal records unless they have made a conditional offer of employment. The same applies to housing. But there are debates on the effectiveness of Ban the Box legislation, especially regarding persons of color with criminal records.  

Regardless of demographic, however, there is radio silence in educational institutions’ use and access to an applicant’s criminal history information. 

Roughly 60 – 80% of education institutions require disclosure of prior convictions by all college applicants. Also, about 5% of all schools go further by requiring applicants to tick the “criminal history” box and go through criminal history screenings for specific degree programs.

  • 25% of colleges automatically close their doors to violent and sexual offenders 
  • 75% view convictions on alcohol and drug offenses as serious and reject applicants with prior felony convictions. 
  • Schools are more likely to reject applicants who are under community supervision for more than five years. 

According to reviews of college admission policies for ex-offenders, there is a shortage of empirical evidence that having a criminal record increases on-campus crimes. Yet, the practices employed by educational institutions suggest they generally agree a background check on former offenders improves campus safety. 

The federal government does not help matters either.

Deciding admission for a former offender has primarily remained the prerogative of the college or university. There are no formal nor legal restrictions governing how colleges use an applicant’s disclosed criminal records to make admissions decisions. Most schools decide on a case-by-case basis. Many schools require recommendation letters from the applicant’s probation officer, among other requirements.

These barriers have made it challenging to earn a degree. Given the obstacles to education outside the correctional system, most offenders tend to get an education while in prison. Until recently, federal laws also limited inmates’ eligibility to access federal student loans to study while behind bars. Congress reinstated inmates’ access to the Federal Pell Grant in December 2020. 

However, the quality and equitable access to college-in-prison programs remain controversial. Outside prison, accessing student loans remains the least of an applicant’s problems. After all, what good is the loan if the individual cannot get admission in the first place? 

Expunging Criminal Records Improves Your Chance To Get An Education

The inequalities between the public and former offenders begin early and accumulate at each level of education, according to a Prison Policy Initiative study. However, a court-ordered sealing or expungement can help you close this gap if you are eligible. 

An expungement removes arrests and convictions from a person’s criminal record entirely – as if they never happened. Sealing prevents most persons from accessing your criminal records without authorization from the court. 

Generally, there is no federal expungement statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records of persons convicted of federal crimes. Thus states make their own laws on the expungement and sealing of criminal records.  

However, the offenses must qualify for expungement. Generally, expungement is possible if the offender was a juvenile at the time of arrest and conviction. Adults with misdemeanor convictions can petition the courts for an expungement. Expunging or sealing records of felony convictions is not generally possible. These include murder, arson, rape, and drug crimes involving scheduled substances. There are also waiting periods, statutes of limitation, and requirements that apply to requesting a court-ordered seal or expungement. You will need to consult a criminal defense attorney to examine how this applies to your case.

Going To College Despite A Criminal Record 

People without a criminal record have a 1 in 3 chance of getting a college degree, according to the Prison Policy Initiative research. The odds are not in favor of formerly incarcerated persons who have less than a 1 in 20 chance of getting a college degree. 

If you wish to get an education after a prison sentence, your best chance is to consult a criminal defense attorney to check your eligibility for expungement per state laws. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may research your state’s laws on expungement and complete the process on your own. 

Meanwhile, the US Department of Education also provides resources for persons who wish to get advanced education after prison. You can also check this guide to getting a job and education after prison by experts at Student Trainings & Education in Public Service (STEPS).