Stanley Andrisse is an endocrinology post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He’s also a convicted felon.
“In my younger years, in my adolescent years, I made a number of poor decisions that eventually led to me sitting in front of a federal judge facing 20 years to life in prison for drug trafficking charges,” he told a state Senate committee last month.
He was sentenced to 10 years, and after going to rehab, he was released early. When he got out, he wanted to continue his education.
He had graduated from college just before going to prison. But after his release, his applications for graduate school were repeatedly denied.
Luckily for Andrisse, he had kept up with a professor from college.
“I was able to build a relationship with a professor that vouched for me to get in,” Andrisse said. “He was on the board of a school that I applied to. I didn’t get into a number of them, but I got into the school that he vouched for me in.”
Andrisse testified last month on a bill in the General Assembly that prevents Maryland colleges from weighing an applicant’s criminal history in undergraduate admissions decisions. The Senate passed the bill yesterday, and the House passed a version earlier this month.
“You apply, based on your transcripts and everything else,” explained Caryn York, director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Baltimore-based advocacy group Job Opportunities Task Force. “If you are successfully admitted based on your academic qualifications, then a criminal background check is run.”
At that point, schools can’t revoke their offers of admission, but they can use that information to offer additional support. For example, a student who plans to become a lawyer or a pharmacist may need to change directions because it may not be possible to get licenses to practice in those fields with a criminal history.
“All we're asking is that individuals that are applying to get a college education be judged on their academic qualifications and merit to get their foot in the door, instead of … being arbitrarily dismissed because they've checked a box,” York said.
The original bill removed questions about criminal history from all applications for higher education institutions in Maryland. But many Maryland schools accept third-party applications, such as the Common App, a form used by hundreds of schools nationwide.
The final version requires schools to remove questions about criminal background from their own applications.
“If they do use a third-party application, of which there are many, they have to put on their website that the question exists on that application and that it will not in fact automatically disqualify a student from admission,” said Baltimore City Del. Maggie McIntosh, sponsor of the House bill.
The original bill would also have helped more people in Andrisse’s situation because it applied to all institutions of higher education. But officials at specialized graduate schools said that would create problems for students intending to enter those fields whose professional licenses require clean criminal backgrounds — like law and pharmacy. The final version of the bill only applies to undergraduate admissions.
But asking applicants about their criminal backgrounds upfront has merits, both for the students with criminal histories and for other students applying, said Joann Boughman, the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Maryland, which oversees 12 institutions in the state.
“We do ask the question upfront, some of our institutions within the Common App, but that does not disqualify a student automatically from admission,” she said during a Senate committee hearing. “What it does do is initiate a process where we can determine better whether the student is going to be able to meet the challenges of their educational program.”
Through this process, the school can offer students with criminal backgrounds the types of counseling and other services the legislation’s supporters describe.
But even asking the question can scare people off from applying, and when they do apply, they face a lengthy process of explaining the past, York said.
“Having to show what the record was and what the charges were and all of these things, it’s almost to the student like, ‘What’s the point? I’m trying to get a college education and here I am having to rehash and re-explain and defend my criminal history, which has nothing to do with me being able to get an education,’” she said.
If the bill becomes law, it will take effect Dec. 1.