WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Education urged colleges and universities on Monday to remove obstacles that can keep the 70 million Americans with criminal records from seeking higher education.
The call coincided with the department's release of guidelines that encourage schools to look for alternatives to asking about criminal histories during admissions and to take a more overall view of applicants' applications.
The move is one way of giving people with criminal records a second chance at more productive lives, Education Secretary John King Jr said.
"The college admissions process shouldn’t serve as a roadblock to opportunity, but should serve as a gateway to unlocking untapped potential of students," he said in a statement.
King made the announcement at the University of California, Los Angeles. The University of California system does not ask about criminal justice history in its admissions.
King's call comes as President Barack Obama is attempting to reform the criminal justice system before he leaves office in January. Despite falling crime rates, more than 2 million Americans are imprisoned, the statement said.
The resource guide calls for delaying the request for involvement in the criminal justice system until after an admission to the school is made.
It also urges informing potential students on how to respond to requests about a criminal history, and making questions about it more narrowly focused.
The Education Department report includes recommendations on how schools might consider campus safety and applicants' criminal histories without discouraging applications for admission.
King said that the schools should join the federal government, 23 states, more than 100 cities and counties and many businesses that have reconsidered how they use criminal justice records during hiring.
Some evidence indicates that inquiries about a criminal history may deter college applications, the statement said.
A 2015 study showed that two-thirds of people with felony convictions who started applications at the State University of New York system never finished the process, partly because of the requirements for detailing their convictions.
By contrast, the attrition rate for all applicants was 21 percent.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Alan Crosby)