University of Minnesota removing prior felony question from student application

In a bold move, the University of Minnesota will no longer require applicants to answer questions about felony convictions.

University leaders have found that since people self-report and have served their time, they are not a threat to campus life.

The dean of undergraduate education is concerned with how the question affects aspiring Gophers from completing applications. While applicants will still need to report prior sexual offenses and academic dishonesty in the updated application, Minnesota student Robert Stewart says the change will save more people like him, a lot of hassle.

“The University of Minnesota has saved people grief,” said Stewart.

Back in Oct. 2009, the University of Minnesota application question, “Have you been convicted of a felony offense?” was nearly the difference between Stewart’s bright future, or, what could have been a hindered one.

“It made me not want to go to college,” said Stewart. “I stopped completing the application, I just walked away.”
Now a fifth year Ph.D. student who studies sociology at the University, Stewart is glad he picked up where he left off.

“I had to write a long letter, and you know the background and what happened, I had to get letters of support from people in the community,” said Stewart.

After a five month process, Stewart, who served his time for first degree drug possession before applying, was finally a Golden Gopher.

“The higher an education a person receives after incarceration, the less likely they are to end up back in prison,” he said.

Stewart became a “ban the box” advocate, pushing to nix criminal history questions from the application process and spare other aspiring Gophers with a checkered past, the extra obstacle.

“To allow a person to increase their employability, to make them more competitive on the job market, to open up lanes of opportunity, that wouldn’t be there without a college degree,” said Stewart.

Come next year, questions about past felony convictions or pending criminal charges will not be on the University’s admissions application.

“The University of Minnesota wouldn’t ask this question until after they have an initial discussion with the applicant and they can see the entire picture of the applicant’s entire qualifications to attend the university,” said Joe Schmitt, a labor and employment attorney.

Schmitt is surprised the question wasn’t removed sooner and expects eliminating this sort of pre-background check won’t stop at the education threshold.  

“It will keep going through the rest of society as we think through with all these individuals with prior convictions, ‘What should we prevent them from doing? What should we restrict them from doing and what really makes sense in terms of restricting their opportunities?’” said Schmitt.

Prospective Gophers will still need to report prior academic dishonesty or sexual offenses on their application. Also, in regards to campus housing, the University will continue to ask about felonies and misdemeanors on those applications as well.