Common App drops disciplinary history question, pointing to racial disparities

The Common Application, which runs an online platform used by more than a million students each year to apply to college, is removing a question that asks applicants about their high school disciplinary history, the Wall Street Journal reports. The nonprofit decided to drop the question after research revealed racial disparities. 

Black applicants were more than twice as likely to report disciplinary violations than their white peers. Moreover, students who disclosed a disciplinary record were less likely to apply to college at all, disproportionately impacting students of color.

The question is “clearly inconsistent and inequitable and disproportionately impacting low-income and students of color,” said Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App. Students and counselors will no longer see the question as of the 2021-22 admission cycle, although individual colleges and universities will still be able to ask about disciplinary records on supplemental application materials. 

Amplifying racial inequities

The disciplinary history question has appeared on the application for 14 years. According to CNN, the question reads: “Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary act?” Students who answer “yes” are asked to explain what happened and what they learned. 

The Common App decided to take a closer look at the question’s impact amid growing evidence that students of color are disproportionately likely to be disciplined in high school. According to a 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Oversight report, Black students accounted for about 39 percent of school suspensions but just 15.5 percent of the public-school population.

Moreover, the Common App noticed that guidance counselors were inconsistent in providing disciplinary information. “There are different policies at school districts that prevents counselors from disclosing whether a student had a disciplinary record, potentially because of what parents in that district lobbied for,” Rickard told CNN. “We learned that Black, Latinx, native, and first-generation students are more likely to attend high schools in districts that disclose their disciplinary records.”

‘A clear and profound adverse effect’

Researchers also noticed that the act of disclosing a disciplinary action appeared to discourage students from submitting their application. Among students who started filling out their application and reported no disciplinary history, just 12 percent ultimately did not hit “send,” compared with 22 percent of students who indicated a disciplinary history. 

Fifty-two percent of the 7,000 students with disciplinary histories who abandoned their applications identified as Black or Latinx (among all applicants, 27 percent identified as Black or Latinx).

Related: Common App announces decision to remove criminal history question >

“We want our application to allow students to highlight their full potential. Requiring students to disclose disciplinary actions has a clear and profound adverse impact. Removing this question is the first step in a longer process to make college admissions more equitable,” Rickard said in a statement. “This is about taking a stand against practices that suppress college-going aspiration and overshadow potential.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Applicants from high schools with a ‘track record’ could have even bigger edge this year

While researching for his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, journalist Jeffrey Selingo found that applicants from known “feeder” high schools tend to have a leg up—and could have an even bigger advantage this year as the pandemic upends typical admissions criteria.