Johnson examines how criminal justice contact can affect college enrollment

Jim Carlson
July 18, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Royel Johnson’s research focuses on examining the consequences that early contact with the criminal justice system through arrest could have for black male college enrollment.

In a 2015 study, Johnson, assistant professor of education (higher education) and African-American studies (by courtesy) within the Penn State College of Education's Department of Education Policy Studies, said he analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of black males and found that that the odds of a young, black male enrolling at a four-year institution who reported ever being arrested as a youth were virtually zero. “Measuring the Influence of Juvenile Arrest on the Odds of Four-Year College Enrollment for Black Males: An NLSY Analysis," was published in Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men.

There were a number of possible explanations for this finding, said Johnson, including education policies and practices that systematically disenfranchise those with criminal records, especially black males.

This work led to a collaboration with Kelly Rosinger, assistant professor in education policy studies. The two now are tracking and analyzing state legislation that places limitations on what colleges and universities can do in asking about an applicants' criminal justice record … essentially, whether they have been arrested or convicted of a crime, Johnson explained.

Maryland and Louisiana, according to Johnson, have passed statewide legislation banning colleges and universities from inquiring about an applicant's criminal record on college applications at public institutions, as well as at private institutions that receive public funding.

"We know that there are 70 million people with criminal records … many who aim to pursue higher education as a viable pathway for upward social mobility," Johnson said.

"Unfortunately, we know from a recent study of the State University of New York (SUNY) system that about two-thirds of individuals with a felony criminal record discontinued their application after being asked about their criminal past,” he added. “What this suggests is that there is likely a chilling effect that happens when one gets to that question, perhaps because of the stigma associated with having a record and the fear that they might not be given a fair chance at admissions."

Johnson said the researchers are critically examining how these policies came about, what discourse is used in framing or defining this problem, and what unintended consequences might occur as a result of what actually gets included in the policy language. Findings from this work could help inform other states across the country that are considering adopting similar policy, while ensuring that it is done in ways that preserve its original intent during implementation, he noted.

A follow-up study by Johnson is examining how institutional actors at colleges and universities in Maryland and Louisiana are responding to these decisions.

"Policy is generally written vague, leaving those who are responsible for interpreting and making sense of it with a degree of autonomy in its enactment. I'm worried that some institutions might be engaged in practices that could circumvent the intended outcome the bans were designed to address,” Johnson said. 

“Many of those who are in opposition with these kinds of policies cite concerns about campus safety and liability, which to some extent are legitimate concerns to have," Johnson said. However, he adds, "while there is not a whole lot of research in this area, there is no evidence which suggests that asking about one's criminal justice history on a college application reduces crime on campus. What we do know, however, from a long line of research is that access to higher education powerfully reduces one's likelihood for future criminal involvement — that evidence is clear.”

Johnson asserted the benefits of higher education for both the individual and society, noting that those who earn college degrees are more likely to earn higher salaries, have a higher occupational status and pay more taxes, and also are more likely to be engaged civically and less likely to re-offend.

"So, why wouldn't we extend the benefits of higher education to those who have been involved in the criminal justice system?" he said. "Access to higher education for justice-involved individuals is not just good economic policy, it is the morally right thing to do. We have a social justice imperative.

"Those who have gone to jail and served their time should have the opportunity for a new life and access to the same kinds of opportunities and benefits that others are afforded," Johnson said.

"As a social scientist I am committed to engaging in consequential research that can improve the material conditions and lives of our most vulnerable populations,” he added. “We've created policies and practices in this country that further disenfranchise individuals who need the most help. I think researchers can play a role in dismantling them."

  • RoyelJ

    Royel Johnson

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 15, 2018