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    January 2014

    Criminal Background Checks of Incoming Students

    Criminal Background Checks of Incoming StudentsWhile most colleges require incoming students to disclose criminal convictions, fewer than 5 percent conduct criminal background checks on applicants, according to a 2010 survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The background check process typically involves asking application questions about convictions and looking for red flags such as inconsistencies or unexplained gaps that warrant further investigation. Consequently, institutions must find a way to effectively balance the rights of applicants with the desire to enroll students of good character.

    Limitations of Criminal Background Checks

    The effectiveness of criminal background checks on incoming students is limited. Most first-year students are teenagers. Crimes they committed as minors are sealed and cannot be discovered through a background check. Most institutions do not have access to the FBI’s criminal database. As a result, they must use background checking companies that rely on records maintained in county courthouses, which vary in accuracy and timeliness. Furthermore, offenses committed outside the county where the student lives are not likely to be revealed by a background check. As a result, the cost-benefit ratio of criminal background checks can be low unless they are targeted at incoming students whose applications raise red flags.

    Best Practices

    UE recommends the following best practices in reviewing the backgrounds of incoming students:

    • Clearly disclose on the application the institution’s policy on background checks of incoming students. State whether applicants are entitled to the due process provided to enrolled students in the student handbook. Most institutions do not provide due process to applicants.
    • Ask questions on the application about convictions for anything other than a minor traffic violation. State that disclosure of convictions does not automatically disqualify an applicant, but lying on the application is grounds for dismissal if the institution subsequently learns of false answers.
    • Establish a committee to consider negative information to ensure consistent treatment of applicants. The committee should consider the seriousness of the infraction, the likelihood of recurrence, evidence of rehabilitation, and the truthfulness of the applicant in disclosing all relevant details. Train members of the committee to interpret criminal records, and give applicants an opportunity to explain any negative information.
    • Follow the requirements of federal and state fair credit reporting laws if the institution uses a background checking company.
    • Require enrolled students to disclose in writing any arrest for an offense other than a minor traffic violation to a designated student affairs administrator, even if the offense occurs when school is not in session.

    Background checks can be a useful screening tool if institutions develop policies and procedures to ensure legal compliance and fairness to applicants and students.


    American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
    Survey - Undergraduate Admission Process for Applicants with Criminal Records

    University of North Carolina System
    Regulation on Student Applicant Background Checks

    University of North Carolina – Wilmington
    Procedures for Student Applicant Background Checks

    Chronicle of Higher Education
    Experts Debate Fairness of Criminal Background Checks on Students


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