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NYU Questions Use of Criminal Background Check on College Application Form

 Grad student workers at NYU are protesting because they say the school has not upheld its end of the contract negotiated earlier this year.
Grad student workers at NYU are protesting because they say the school has not upheld its end of the contract negotiated earlier this year.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

GREENWICH VILLAGE — New York University wants the board behind a college application website to look into removing two controversial questions about students' disciplinary history and criminal record — saying they may impede minority and disadvantaged students' chances at admission.

The Common Application, an online portal that helps streamline the college application process by giving students a one-stop process for more than 600 participating schools, was created in 1975 with the goal of improving access to higher education.

But advocates have taken issue with two questions that were added in 2007 asking students to disclose their disciplinary history and criminal record.

NYU, after pressure from student groups, is now questioning whether those two questions are working counter to the Common Application's original mission.

"In the context of high rates of school discipline and incarceration among people of color, it seems vital to pose two questions about the checkboxes," NYU Vice President for Enrollment Management MJ Knoll-Finn wrote to Common's CEO and the director of its board.

The checkboxes were added at the height of a national conversation about making college campuses safer, Knoll-Finn said. NYU's current push also comes on the heels of President Barack Obama's recent executive order banning the same criminal history checkbox from federal job applications.

Almost 10 years later, NYU wants the Common App board to reevaluate whether the boxes have kept college campuses safer, as they were supposed to do, or whether they discourage applicants or otherwise "work against universities’ mission as engines of social mobility and diversity."

NYU gets roughly 50 to 80 applicants a year who check one of the boxes, according to information provided by the school. That would be about 0.1 percent of the applicant pool last year, which numbered 63,000.

Of those 50 to 80 applicants, roughly five to 10 are typically accepted into any given freshman class, the school said.

Because their data pool is so small, NYU can't do a meaningful research study on its own, which is why Knoll-Finn proposed the Common App lead the initiative.

"For its part, NYU would be happy to participate, to share our data, to work with the Common App to persuade other institutions to be part of the study, and to push this research effort forward so that we might promptly address issues of access and fairness," Knoll-Finn wrote.

"Each year the matter remains unresolved could mean we are disadvantaging students who might otherwise go on to earn a degree."

Officials at the Common Application, Inc., the nonprofit group that runs the Common Application, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.