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Colleges That Ask Applicants About Brushes With the Law Draw Scrutiny

The online admissions application for Auburn University appears simple, until you get to this question on Page 7:

"Have you ever been charged with or convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime other than a minor traffic offense, or are there any criminal charges now pending against you?"

Those who check "yes," even though they have never been convicted of any crime, face extra scrutiny - a call from the admissions office asking for additional information, the university says.

Auburn, in Auburn, Ala., is one of 17 universities in the South that include broad questions on their admissions applications about any contact with the legal system or the police that applicants might have had - even an arrest, with no conviction - according to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group. The universities are now the focus of an inquiry by the organization, which says such questions unfairly penalize minorities, who tend to face arrest more frequently and, as a result, could face higher admissions hurdles.

"The disparities and underrepresentation we see at schools is a concern, and this may indeed be one of the contributing factors," said Kristen Clarke, the group's executive director, citing statistics showing low black enrollment at some of the colleges. At Auburn, for example, African-Americans make up 7 percent of the student body in a state where blacks total about 25 percent of the population.

The organization announced Thursday that it would inquire about practices at Auburn and the 16 other institutions that question prospective students about arrests or other contact with the criminal justice system that stops short of a conviction.

The inquiry comes amid growing concern that admissions questions about criminal history and disciplinary action discriminate against black applicants, as a body of statistical evidence emerges showing that black teenagers are singled out for disciplinary action in school and stopped by police at unusually high rates.

The Common Application, used by 600 colleges, does not ask about arrests, but does require applicants to check "yes" or "no" to whether they have been convicted of a crime or faced serious disciplinary action in school.

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