The Common Application is scrapping a question that asks applicants to reveal whether they have been subject to disciplinary action in high school, aiming to eliminate what it says could be an obstacle for Black students considering college.
For more than a decade, the application—submitted by more than 1 million students to more than 900 colleges and universities—requested that students disclose whether they’d been found responsible for a “disciplinary violation.” That could be academic or behavioral misconduct, and would have led to probation, suspension or expulsion.
After a deep dive into its own data earlier this year, funded by a Gates Foundation grant, the Common App found that Black applicants marked “yes” more than twice as often as white applicants. Black women were three times as likely as white women to say they’d been disciplined. And those who did give affirmative responses submitted applications at a lower rate.
“It’s clearly inconsistent and inequitable and disproportionately impacting low-income and students of color,” said Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App.
The question had been added to the Common App in 2006 at the request of member schools, many of which at the time asked it on their supplemental forms. It is generally used to flag applicants with histories of cheating or behavioral issues and who may cause problems in college. It will stop appearing in the 2021-2022 admission cycle.
A U.S. Government Accountability Oversight report from 2018 shows Black students accounted for 15.5% of all public-school students, but represented about 39% of students suspended from school.
One of the most troubling findings from the Common App’s analysis, said Ms. Rickard, was the disparity in which guidance counselors filled out their version of the discipline report for colleges. While 25,000 applicants self-reported their disciplinary records last year, counselors for about 5,000 flagged the issues to colleges. Many—particularly those in schools with higher populations of wealthy and white students—said that their districts or schools don’t allow them to disclose it.
Counselors who submit recommendations for applicants will no longer see the question on their portion of the Common App either.
Colleges can still ask about applicants’ disciplinary records on supplemental application forms. After the Common App eliminated a question about criminal records, in 2019, just under half of schools still asked separately.
“It’s critically important that we not create artificial barriers to opportunity for students,” said John King, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and now president and CEO of the nonprofit Education Trust, which advocates for equitable access to education for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. “The question can have a chilling effect on students’ willingness to apply and their own aspirations for postsecondary education.”
Mr. King was kicked out of high school and, at the urging of his counselor, still applied and was accepted at Harvard University. He had to write an extra essay explaining why he’d been expelled and what he learned from that experience.
The University of Wisconsin—Madison joined the Common Application in 2016 but chose then to suppress the school-discipline question from the material it transfers over into its application review system.
André Phillips, director of admissions and recruitment, said he never wanted students to be scared off from applying because of a past transgression, and the data the Common App group collected this year affirmed that was happening.
“We’re in the student-development business,” he said. “Students make mistakes, they learn from those mistakes. Students grow.”
The Common App is also reviewing questions about citizenship; family background, which asks for parents’ occupations and might be difficult for undocumented students to answer; religious preference; discipline in military service, and gender expression.
Write to Melissa Korn at [email protected]
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