The recent controversy surrounding a young man pursuing his education at the University of Rhode Island raises several societal issues. (“One student’s journey from state prison to URI sparks inquiry,” Katherine Gregg, 2/24/13). Should we encourage all Rhode Islanders to pursue an education, regardless of background? How do we encourage the formerly incarcerated to successfully re-enter society and assume their rights and responsibilities as citizens?
I am Co-Founder and President of the Transcending Through Education Foundation. The Foundation was founded last year to encourage and support people who are incarcerated and were formerly incarcerated in pursuing higher education. We believe education is the most effective tool in helping people live productive lives and become better citizens. Postsecondary education has proven to lead to greater civic participation and higher earnings.
URI and other institutions of higher education should of course consider the background of applicants and the safety of students and faculty when making admissions decisions, whether the applicant has a criminal record or not. However, in this case, URI did not have the benefit of assessing Mr. Jones’s criminal record in making its decision because the alternate admission application he filled out did not request the information.
URI states that normally they review applicants with a criminal record on a “case-by-case” basis. We support case-by-case reviews and commend URI for having such a review process. We also encourage URI and other institutions of higher-learning to continue to develop criteria that assess more than a person’s criminal record when making an admission decision. Relevant criteria should be developed from a thoughtful and knowledgeable position that can withstand the occasional controversy.
As Rhode Island’s flagship public university, URI has a role in educating all Rhode Islanders. This includes qualified applicants from the over 20,000 Rhode Islanders living in the community on probation or parole and the many more who have a criminal record. Educational institutions serve a historical role in providing people with a way out of challenging circumstances, whether they are born into them or are responsible for them through a series of bad decisions. If universities relied solely on criminal background checks, they would practically foreclose a vital pathway to a better life for many people. And we would collectively reinforce a cycle of poverty and struggle, sometimes leading to prison, for the same population.
Without knowing Malcolm Jones’s specific circumstances, we know that he decided to pursue his education, most likely as a way to better his life, as many other citizens also do. We should encourage more people to do the same and support the efforts of our institutions of higher education in providing people with that opportunity.
Transcending Through Education Foundation