Study: Prior criminal behavior does not necessarily predict behavior on campus

27 Apr

As colleges seek to make campuses safer, they are beginning to look at the criminal records of applicants. Kelly Sennott writes in the New Hampshire article, One in 29 college students has a criminal record:

Everyone makes mistakes in high school and college. Some make bigger mistakes than others, potentially affecting their chances of getting accepted into school, getting an internship, or finding a job. This difficulty is not an uncommon problem for college students, as one out of 29 has a criminal record., a supplier of criminal background checks for students and faculty members, recently revealed a study that showed that one out of every 29 college students have some type of criminal record. In the study, which didn’t include juvenile records, 13,859 college students at 125 universities, career colleges, nursing schools, and other educational institutions were surveyed through a website,

 The names of the schools involved in the study were not revealed, but the percentages of convictions were; Driving violations topped the charts at a whopping 60 percent, followed by disorderly conduct (9.5 percent), theft (8.8 percent), drug possession (7.4 percent), sexual abuse (5.2 percent), assault (4 percent), fraud (2.7 percent), and child molestation (2.4 percent)….

Colleges debate whether students with criminal backgrounds should be admitted.

Libby Sandler is reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Students’ Prior Criminal Histories Don’t Predict Future Misconduct, Research Finds:

As colleges seek ways to make their campuses safer, many have opted to examine the criminal histories of students before they’re admitted. New research, however, reveals that criminal-background checks and pre-admission screening do not accurately predict whether an incoming student will pose a threat or disruption in college.

Based on an analysis of nearly 7,000 seniors at a large Southern university, a report says that only 3 percent of students who engaged in misconduct on the campus during their college years had reported criminal histories during the admissions process. Of the students who did report a criminal record, meanwhile, just under 9 percent were accused of misconduct during college.

The report, published in the journal Injury Prevention in February, was written by Carol W. Runyan, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, and three other researchers.

For years, colleges and legal experts have wrestled with the question of whether—and how—institutions should attempt to identify incoming students who might present a threat to public safety. The quandary is what to do with any information collected: how to evaluate it fairly and consistently while avoiding discrimination against some students but also protecting against any future incident.

‘Likely Troublemakers’

According to a national survey in 2010, more than 60 percent of colleges consider applicants’ criminal histories in admissions decisions, but only half of those colleges have formal policies on how to do so, and only 38 percent of admissions staffs receive training on interpreting criminal records.

The new research sought to examine if students who were likely to engage in misconduct could be effectively screened during the application process. It also explored whether students with a criminal background upon entering college were more likely to commit crimes while enrolled than were students who started with clean records.

Researchers reviewed students’ responses to application questions about their criminal history, which asked them to say whether they’d been convicted, taken responsibility for a crime, or had charges pending against them at that time. A “yes” to any of those questions meant the students were considered to have criminal histories.

To evaluate students’ behavior in college, the researchers looked at the university’s disciplinary records and kept track of nonacademic misconduct violations, focusing on offenses like assault, robbery, property crimes, driving under the influence, marijuana use, and other drug-related charges. They also included cases that the institution’s honor court had dismissed but that were prosecuted successfully in local court. (The report states that the research was approved by the institutional review board at the University of North Carolina.)

The findings reveal that students who were guilty of misconduct in college were more likely than their classmates to have had pre-college criminal records. But the screening questions often did not identify which students would go on to commit crimes, and most students who did have records before enrolling in college didn’t cause any trouble once there.

In the report, Ms. Runyan points out that the research “raises as many questions as it answers.” Many questions, she says, are practical and ethical: If colleges are going to make smart decisions about pre-admission screening, she writes, they’ll need to think about how past behavior influences future actions. And even if the screening does accurately identify “likely troublemakers,” colleges must decide in which cases to admit them.                                                                            


Can student-perpetrated college crime be predicted based on precollege misconduct?

  1. 1.    Carol W Runyan1,2,
  2. 2.    Matthew W Pierce3,
  3. 3.    Viswanathan Shankar4,
  4. 4.    Shrikant I Bangdiwala5,6,7

+ Author Affiliations

  1. 1.     1Department of Epidemiology, Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado, USA
  2. 2.     2Pediatric Injury Prevention, Education and Research Program, Colorado School of Public Health and University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, Colorado, USA
  3. 3.     3School of Law, American University Washington College of Law, Washington, DC, USA
  4. 4.     4Division of Biostatistics, Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York, USA
  5. 5.     5Department of Biostatistics, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  6. 6.     6Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa
  7. 7.     7University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  8. Correspondence to Dr Carol W Runyan, Department of Epidemiology, Colorado School of Public Health, Paediatric Injury Prevention, Education and Research (PIPER) Program, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, 13001 E. 17th Place, Mail Stop B119, Aurora, CO 80045, USA;

     Received 23 September 2012

     Revised 2 January 2013

     Accepted 16 January 2013

     Published Online First 23 February 2013


Objectives Many colleges assess criminal histories during the admissions process, in part, to address violence on campus. This study sought to examine the utility of screening as a means of reducing violence.

Methods Using cohort and case-control analyses, we identified college misconduct through college records and self-reports on a confidential survey of graduating seniors, and examined precollege behaviour as indicated on admissions records, a survey and criminal background checks.

Results One hundred and twenty students met our case definition of college misconduct, with an estimated OR of 5.28 (95% CI 1.92 to 14.48) associated with precollege misconduct revealed on the college application. However, only 3.3% (95% CI 1.0% to 8.0%) of college seniors engaging in college misconduct had reported precollege criminal behaviours on their applications and 8.5% (95% CI 2.4% to 20.4%) of applicants with a criminal history engaged in misconduct during college.

Discussion Though precollege behaviour is a risk factor for college misconduct, screening questions on the application are not adequate to detect which students will engage in college misconduct. This pilot work would benefit from replication to determine the utility of criminal background investigations as part of admissions.

See, College Admission Questions Rarely Identify Criminal Behavior

A 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Experts Debate Fairness of Criminal-Background Checks on Students by Sara Lipka reported that some administrators urge a pragmatic approach:

She recommended not simply considering students’ criminal histories, but establishing policies to evaluate them fairly and consistently. Such policies should specify how to handle sealed juvenile records, news reports of arrests or convictions, and other tricky circumstances like reduced charges; how to disclose admissions decisions to applicants; and how to control access to students’ criminal records, to limit accusations of discrimination and defamation.

Institutions should also consider updating their information with repeated checks, Ms. Dickerson advised. And legal and mental-health experts must regularly train the administrators who make decisions on which students to let in versus keep out, she said. “Just putting background checks in place I’m not really sure is going to do much for campus safety.”         

Unfortunately, this is an issue where colleges will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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