University of Illinois at Chicago students literally threw out the welcome mat on campus Wednesday as they urged university officials to make the university open to all by no longer asking about past criminal convictions on its application.
Wearing graduation hats and standing in front of a 6-by-8-foot gray mat that read “Welcome,” student leaders and state lawmakers said the question goes against the university’s mission of equity, access, and inclusion. They said it discourages students with criminal histories from applying.
“That question says you are not welcome, that says you are still marked by that action you committed, that we still view you as outside of our community,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago).
A student-led coalition, YES APPLY ILLINOIS!, has for the last year pushed university officials to remove questions about student criminal records and high school disciplinary violations. In August, the Common Application announced it will remove the question from its materials, which UIC students use, starting next year.
That was good news for opponents of the question, but schools can also require students to submit a supplemental application that can include a criminal background question. Students are now encouraging UIC and the University of Illinois system not to include that question.
In a statement, a UIC spokesperson said a working group for the University of Illinois system is reviewing the issue. Once a decision is reached, there will be a campus discussion.
According to a 2017 study from the National Employment Law Project, an estimated 47 percent of Illinois residents have some kind of criminal or arrest record. This number is an extrapolation based on U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics.
Ph.D student Torey Cohen-Boseman said he served more than two years in prison for racketeering from his time in a gang in Tennessee. When he was released, he applied to UIC’s graduate school program and was forced to disclose his conviction.
“You would assume you’ve paid your debt to society but this is just a continuation of the sentencing,” Cohen-Boseman said. “It’s almost like a life sentence.”
UIC recently removed the question from its graduate school applications. Erin O’Callaghan, with the UIC Graduate Employees Organization, told the crowd they are trying to include people with arrest records as a protected class in a nondiscrimination clause in their labor contract, but said the university has refused that request.
UIC did not return a request for comment on that issue.
WBEZ also checked in with several local colleges and universities about their applications. Northeastern Illinois University does not use the Common App and does not ask students about past criminal convictions. City Colleges of Chicago also doesn’t ask students those questions in its general application for admission.
Columbia College Chicago said it does include that question separately from the Common App, and there are no talks at this time to make changes to its application. DePaul University, Chicago State University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago did not return requests for comment.
A bill that would remove conviction questions from all public university applications passed the Illinois House this year, but hasn’t cleared the Senate. Lawmakers at Wednesday’s event at UIC said that’s a priority when they head back to Springfield for a fall veto session next month.
Governors State University also does not use the Common App but does ask questions about criminal history.
“As a public institution, GSU is awaiting final resolution to pending state legislation,” said Aurelio Manuel Valente, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.