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Common App Cuts Question On School Discipline

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

The Common Application (Common App) announced that it will no longer ask applicants about their high school discipline records

Although individual schools can choose to ask about disciplinary violations, the question will no longer appear on the common portion of the 2021-22 application or on the School Report portion, which is typically completed by applicant’s high school guidance counselors.

What is the Common App?

The Common App is an undergraduate college admission application that students can use to apply to multiple colleges and universities. 

It’s the most widely used college application platform. Over 1.1 million students complete the Common App each year, and it’s accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities in 49 states and 19 countries. Notably, all eight Ivy League institutions accept the Common App.

The non-profit member organization aims to increase the accessibility of higher education by simplifying the application process. 

How is the Common App Changing?

Since 2006, the Common App has asked applicants to provide information about their high school discipline record. The question read:

“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 answered “Yes” to the question were asked to provide dates and descriptions of any behavior incidents, then reflect on what they learned from the experience.

In 2021, the Common App will no longer ask students about their school discipline history in the common portion of the application. 

Beginning with the 2021-22 application season, the Common App will no longer include this question in the common portion of the application. This follows last year’s decision to stop requiring applicants to disclose their criminal history.  

However, this doesn’t mean that college applicants will never have to disclose school discipline or criminal history. Individual colleges and universities may choose to ask for this type of information as part of a supplementary process, but the Common App itself will not require it.

Why Did the Common App Make this Change?

The Common App decided to remove the school discipline question after research showed that it disproportionately impacted students of color, particularly Black students.

According to a study from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, suspension rates for Black students are 3.5 times higher than suspension rates for white students. Within both groups, suspension rates are even higher for students with disabilities. Decades of research indicate that Black and low-income students are disciplined more frequently than their white peers, even for the same infractions.

Inequity in discipline is a significant issue because a student’s disciplinary history in school impacts the trajectory of their life. Students who are suspended or expelled are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year. According to the Common App’s research, these students are also less likely to apply to college.

The Common App analyzed application data and found that Black applicants reported disciplinary infractions at more than twice the rate of white students. Those who disclose discipline records are less likely to apply to any college, perhaps fearing that they won’t get in after having to include this information on their applications. 

Data from 2019 shows that 22% of students who reported disciplinary history left their applications unfinished.

Typically, some students who begin to fill out the Common App eventually abandon their application, never pressing “Send.” Data from 2019 shows that 12% of students who did not report any disciplinary history did not finish the application, while 22% of students who did report disciplinary history left their applications unfinished.

In total, more than 7,000 students who disclosed disciplinary infractions did not submit their application, according to the Common App. 31% of these students are Black and 21% are Hispanic, although Black students represent only 11% of all applicants and Hispanic students comprise 16% of all applicants.

Removing this question is the first step in a longer process to make college admissions more equitable.—Jenny Rickard, President and CEO of the Common Application

Another finding reported by the Common App was that although 25,000 applicants self-reported their discipline history last year, counselors flagged the issue to colleges for only about 5,000 people. Many guidance counselors, especially those in schools with higher proportions of wealthy and white students, said their schools or districts do not allow them to share this information. Jenny Rickard, the President and CEO of the Common Application, explained that white students and students whose parents attended college are more likely to go to high schools that prevent the disclosure of disciplinary history.

“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. This is about taking a stand against practices that suppress college-going aspiration and overshadow potential,” said Rickard.


What You Need To Know About The Common App

Future Implications

Rickard informed the Wall Street Journal that the Common App is researching and analyzing the impact of questions on citizenship, family background, religious preference, gender expression, and discipline in military service, with more changes to the Common App potentially on the way.

Of course, the policies and practices of individual colleges and universities will vary.

Since the Common App removed the criminal history question last year, approximately 50% of colleges have added the question back into their supplements, Rickard said. It’s too early to see how colleges will react to the removal of the school discipline question, but Rickard added that the Common App will track this information closely.

In December 2019, The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) published a report advising colleges not to ask about criminal or disciplinary histories if it was not a state or system requirement. 

There is little evidence that screening for criminal and disciplinary history makes college campuses safer, even though this is often the logic behind these questions on applications.—Michael Reilly, CEO of AACRAO

Michael Reilly, CEO of AACRAO, said the association gave this advice because they felt that asking students to disclose criminal and disciplinary history has “led to students abandoning the admissions process, often for past activities that would not have prevented them from being admitted.” He also cited disparities in how these questions impact students of color. 

In addition, Reilly said, there is little evidence to support the idea that screening for criminal and disciplinary history makes college campuses safer, even though this is typically the logic behind including these questions on applications.

With the recent national focus on racial injustice, Reilly believes that more colleges will follow AACRAO and the Common App’s lead. These changes point to a continued focus on making higher education more equitable and more accessible to students of varied cultures, life experiences, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Final Thoughts: Common App Removes Question About School Discipline

The Common App’s removal of the discipline question is part of a larger movement to make college admissions more equitable. Education is one of the clearest paths to career and life success, so it must be equally accessible for all students. 

When low-income students and students of color, particularly Black students, are disproportionately disciplined in high school, they also become less likely to apply to college and more likely to become involved with the justice system. Addressing these racial and economic disparities is essential for not only equity in education, but also equity in society as a whole.

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.