When Kevin Ballou was released from prison in 2017, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. As an inmate in the Marion Correctional Facility in Ohio, he’d earned nearly sixty academic credits and understood that completing an undergraduate degree on the outside was essential.
“It is also important to stress that the discussion of systemic barriers to higher education is part of an ongoing dialogue among administrators that includes looking at racial disparities and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system.”
Ballou’s story has a happy ending: He is now in his senior year at Cleveland State University (CSU), majoring in nonprofit administration, and expects to complete his degree in spring 2021.
But the road to a Bachelor of Arts degree was not without difficulties.
The first obstacle, Ballou says, was the application itself. “Have you ever pled guilty or been convicted of a criminal offense, or have charges pending against you?” it asked.
“I saw the box next to that question, and I realized that once I’d checked it my whole plan could fall by the wayside,” Ballou tells The Progressive. “It was six years after my initial arrest and I had grown so much, but I wondered if I’d ever be able to reach my goals.”
Despite his fear, Ballou was admitted to CSU in the fall of 2018. Nonetheless, he never forgot his trepidation about the application process. A year later, he and several other CSU students launched a “Ban the Box” campaign which sought to end the stigma against previously incarcerated students. The goal was to push the university to eliminate all questions about criminal history on the admissions application.
In addition to his personal history, Ballous says that his decision to organize around this issue was also provoked by something serendipitous. “Just as I was starting at CSU, I was invited to attend a national conference of formerly incarcerated students and learned that the state of Washington had removed the question from its public university application,” he says.
He later learned that the State University of New York (SUNY) had removed criminal background questions in 2017. Even more significant, in 2018 the Common Application, used by more than 800 public and private two and four-year programs throughout the United States, also removed them.
Still, Ballou was troubled, since research revealed that approximately 70 percent of four-year programs continued to ask applicants about their involvement in the criminal justice system.
This seemed unfair to Ballou, so he decided to do something about it.
As part of the Ohio Student Association, he and other students from the Buckeye State amassed anecdotal evidence about the box’s negative impact on prospective college applicants. They also armed themselves with hard data from the State University of New York’s anti-box campaign. In documenting what they called “felony application attrition,” SUNY activists demonstrated that of the 2924 applicants who checked the box for felony conviction, two-thirds, or 1828, did not complete their application.
“It is both unrealistic and disingenuous to expect people who have served their sentence after a criminal conviction to live law-abiding and productive lives if they are continuously denied employment and educational opportunities,” they wrote to the SUNY Chancellor.
Ballou and his CSU and OSA peers agreed with this assessment. Noting that one-quarter of former inmates lack a high school diploma or GED, let alone a college degree, they argued that employment prospects will continue to be bleak for ex-offenders unless the formerly incarcerated have access to higher education. What’s more, they highlighted the fact that ex-cons have a 27 percent unemployment rate.
“The CSU administration was not necessarily enthusiastic about working with us on this,” CSU senior and OSA activist Jenna Thomas reports. “Some administrators expressed fear about student and staff safety, but we continued to push, despite COVID-19. We stayed on their radar throughout the summer and collected letters of support from faculty and public officials.”
Their organizing paid off. According to Jonathan Wehner, CSU’s vice president for enrollment management and student success, as of fall 2020, the college’s application longer required students to disclose low-level infractions.
“We use the Common Application,” Wehner says. “And even though criminal history is no longer mentioned, institutions are allowed to ask their own questions. We worked hand-in-hand with students and over many months agreed to several changes.”
The criminal history question, for example, now reads: “Have you ever pled guilty or been convicted of a criminal offense (excluding offenses that would be classified under Ohio law as minor misdemeanors such as most traffic offenses, disorderly conduct, possession of drug paraphernalia, etc.) or have charges pending against you?”
“We felt it was important to enumerate the kinds of minor misdemeanors that are excluded,” Wehner says. “It is also important to stress that the discussion of systemic barriers to higher education is part of an ongoing dialogue among administrators that includes looking at racial disparities and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system.”
CSU’s application includes one more change, which Wehner says is meant to address the surveillance fears of those who have served time: “CSU believes students are more than their record. We are dedicated to providing an inclusive pathway to higher education and successful reentry for the formerly incarcerated.” The statement further assures applicants that all disclosures will remain confidential.
This is significant, Kevin Ballou says. “When I first enrolled at CSU, I felt like there was a watchful eye on me, as if I was starting at a lower level than other students. Once, when I went to the gym and swiped my ID, the card messed up and the thing started beeping. I imagined that I’d been labeled dangerous, and even though it was probably a malfunction of the machine, I felt like the staff knew my background. A guarantee of confidentiality will help eliminate these feelings.”
Although student Jenna Thomas sees this as progress, she is also more circumspect. “We did not completely ban the box,” she says. “We see the changes that were made as an incremental victory, a start.”
That said, some of the obstacles are beyond the scope of either CSU or the OSA to change.
Take the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which requires students applying for financial assistance to answer question twenty-three: “Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid?”
Answering ‘YES’ can bar a student from receipt of Pell Grants, federal work study, and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, as well as loans, for a year or longer.
Thankfully, activists and college staff report that this, too, may be changing.
Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators explains that there is a great deal of momentum among college and university administrators to eliminate the question. “It seems arbitrary to many of the 3,000 institutions that are members of NASFAA to only ask about drug convictions since we do not try to capture other bad behaviors on the form. Overall, there is a big push to simplify the FAFSA.”
This push has gained traction due to the 2019 introduction of the FAFSA Simplification Act [S. 2557], which was introduced in the Senate by Lamar Alexander [R-TN] and Doug Jones [D-Al] Although the bill is still pending, McCarthy says that passage is likely. She also notes that the bill will reduce the number of FAFSA questions from 108 to no more than thirty and omit all reference to drug or other criminal convictions.
This sounds good to both Ballou and Thomas.
“We want to continue working to ban the box and make CSU more accepting of students who have been incarcerated,” Thomas says, “but for now, we’ve pivoted to look at policing at CSU.
Thomas says that the on-campus group is now “looking at the school’s budget and asking why policing expenditures outpace spending for the food pantry, the counseling center, and the women’s center. We’re interested in suggesting an alternative budget and making the cultural and environmental changes that will make long-term improvements possible.”