In an effort to narrow a growing pool of qualified candidates, college admissions officers have taken a draconian step backward to make their jobs easier — immediately rejecting students with extensive disciplinary records.
Using these records as a factor in the admissions process is a punitive action that denies students future opportunities. Perhaps these officers think of what they’re doing as separating the wheat (good students who never made mistakes or bad decisions in high school) from the chaff (bad students who made mistakes and bad decisions and were caught and punished), but this practice ensures that students with disciplinary records will continue to be punished.
These students’ right to a better future through a college education is denied when admissions officers engage in this practice.
An informal survey of parents in my personal network resulted in a pretty even split. Half of them think using disciplinary records to inform admissions decisions is a good idea, while half are disturbed by it.
One Pittsburgh parent of three — a college freshman, a high school freshman, and a sixth-grader — favors screening by disciplinary record, saying, “Young people will make bad decisions, so I think an admissions committee should not exclude someone that has an infraction on their record. However, I think they have a right to know who they are inviting into their community.” She further cited bullying and violence as behaviors and tendencies that colleges should know about.
Another parent from Virginia (whose children are in middle school), was unsure about this practice. She said that it “opens a Pandora’s box regarding admissions standards.” She went on to explain, “If a student is consistently disobeying rules, suspended, or worse, expelled, shouldn't a prospective college be privy to that information? On the flip side, I do think students should be notified that [their] disciplinary records are or will be examined accordingly. When you have two almost identical students academically, yet can admit only one, what should be used to determine which would have better success in college?”
Two more parents I spoke with — one from Pennsylvania and one from Alabama — insisted that though kids make mistakes and bad decisions, they shouldn’t be held against them. The Alabama parent mentioned teens’ general lack of maturity. The Pennsylvania parent said, “Kids need space to mess up and start over. The last thing any high school student needs is to feel like the stakes are getting higher.”
As a tenured professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, I see many different types of students who struggle for various reasons, but who all have the same opportunities to learn, practice, and succeed at whatever future they wish to craft for themselves.
When I think about my students and this punishing practice of considering high school disciplinary records as part of the admissions process, my stomach lurches and I am angry. How dare any administrator deny a student the opportunity to have a better future simply because she got caught breaking rules in high school? How many of us can claim we were totally well-behaved as teenagers?
I need look no further for evidence than my own background to add a voice of opposition to the practice of using students’ high school disciplinary records as a deciding factor in college admissions.
I would have been one of the students harmed by this sort of thing: I hated my high school, skipped classes, smoked on school grounds, got suspended, was considered a “burnout” (it was the 80s), and graduated in the bottom third of my class. Thank the universe that my college did not ask for (and was not offered) my disciplinary record, or I may not now be a successful tenured professor who guides hundreds of students each year through writing projects, and who actively advocates for marginalized groups.
In my case, the high school was a total mismatch with my strengths (writing, theater, anything creative), my personality, and my values. Today, there are multitudes of public, private, and charter schools that specialize in catering to students for whom traditional models of education don’t work. Sadly, no such places existed in my hometown in the 1980s. My parents took the we-are-adults-and-know-better-than-you approach when I repeatedly expressed my unhappiness with my high school.
When a university denies a student admission based on disciplinary records, they are losing out on individuals with a great amount of promise. In my case, once I got to Point Park University, I thrived. I graduated with honors and eventually went on to earn my M.A. and Ph.D. after a successful 10-year run as a freelance journalist. Students are more than their mistakes and bad decisions, and colleges should view them all as having tremendous potential.
College should provide a clean slate — a fresh start. I hate to think of any student being denied future opportunities for the sake of admissions officers being able to make decisions more easily.
What You Can Do
1. Know your rights.
Familiarize yourself with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), especially section 2.B., which explains that disciplinary records are considered “protected education records.” Here is a relevant excerpt:
Parents and eligible students may request an explanation or interpretation of their education records, whether these records are held by schools, agencies, or representatives of educational institutions. The agency must respond to requests to review education records within 45 days of the inquiry.
What this means, in plain language, is that families have a right to access their kids’ education-related records in a timely fashion, though they may not be able to keep them from being passed on to colleges (as we’ll soon see).
2. Request your student records.
Contact your high school’s office and ask to see your student disciplinary records. As explained in the point above, FERPA guarantees your right to review these records. After accessing the relevant documents, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you are comfortable with the high school sending them to college admissions committees.
3. Make a written nondisclosure request.
If you prefer to keep a student disciplinary record confidential, you should make this request in writing to the school administration. While there’s a chance you’ll be successful, you should also be prepared to be disappointed; the law supports a school’s right to disclose students’ entire educational records (including disciplinary details) to any university that requests them.
4. If you’re denied, appeal and explain the situation.
According to FERPA:
If a request to amend records is denied, the applicant can subsequently appeal the decision in a hearing conducted by the education agency. After the hearing, a parent or eligible student who continues to disagree with the contents of a record can insert an explanation of the objection into the official record, and that explanation must remain with the record as long as it is held by the agency.
In other words, even if a school insists on passing along disciplinary records to colleges, you can offer your own side of the story. This account of things will then stay attached to all disciplinary documents as long as a high school or school district hangs onto them.
5. Provide a narrative for colleges.
If your nondisclosure request is unsuccessful, you might consider addressing a significant disciplinary incident in your college application materials. This is probably just as risky as not addressing it, but it will give you the opportunity to explain things in your own way.
To quote FERPA again, “Without consent of the parent or eligible student, education records can be disclosed to school officials designated as having a ‘legitimate educational interest.’”
The law leaves individual districts to determine the legitimacy of a party’s educational interest, but college admissions officers, who can easily claim that they need access to such information “to fulfill their professional responsibilities,” have a pretty good argument for legitimacy.
In other words, if colleges want these records, they’ll probably be able to get to them.
Even if a school goes ahead and releases your information to a postsecondary institution, however, you’ll know about it: “Such releases must be reported to the parent or eligible student unless the release either is initiated by one of them or is specified by local policy.”
If this ends up being the case, be honest on your application about the conditions under which a given incident occurred and explain the context when it’s necessary. Emphasize how you’ve grown or changed since the event and what you’ve learned from dealing with it. While it’s wrong for a school to categorically write off applicants for disciplinary infractions, many admissions officers are willing to listen to students’ explanations.
You can also use the college search feature to find universities that match your needs and interests.