UW may soon use criminal history in admissions decisions

SEATTLE -- Legal trouble can have a huge impact on a person's life, especially if it starts at a young age. Now the University of Washington is grappling with the question of whether a student's criminal past should come into play during the admission process.

University officials have been bouncing around the idea of adding criminal background checks to their application for years. The debate came to a head last year, when the school discovered it had granted admission to level II and level III sex offenders.

Vice provost Eric Godfrey said not all crimes should automatically keep a student out of the university. But if it was a violent crime or a high level sex offense, he said it would be prudent to weed out those bad apples during the application process.

"We have a high obligation to ensure that this campus is safe," he said.

It's a growing debate among top tier universities around the country, and next month the University of Washington will decide if it, too, will add a criminal background question to its application.

Some current students think it's a great idea, while others argue that because the university is state funded, the policy could become a slippery slope.

"I don't think that has anything to do with their academic standing," said Julio Ahumada, who heads up a school organization for Chicano students.

Ahumada fears background questions could unfairly keep talented students from getting an education.

"People change and that's just the way it is," he said.

Godfrey said the questions would identify only people convicted of the most violent crimes. Applicants who have committed those types of crimes would then be evaluated by a panel of mental and community health experts and police.

The ACLU will be looking closely at any decision about who gets in and who doesn't based on criminal history. In a statement, the organization said a person's criminal past "does not mean that he or she should be denied the opportunity of a college education. Nor does a record alone mean that a person will be a safety problem on campus."

Godfrey agrees it's tricky finding a balance. The school wants to keep the campus safe, but they don't want to deny someone the chance to get an education.

If the school does decide to implement the policy, those questions would appear on next year's applications