Can I get into college with a criminal record?

It’s common knowledge that a criminal record negatively impacts your employment or even housing search. Earning a degree won’t be that easy for aspiring college students with prior convictions either. That said, it should be made clear that while past criminal convictions can affect your chances of earning a college degree, being in this situation will not deny you of the chance to go to college.

Simply put, there is no law preventing people with felony records or minor criminal records from attending college. “Education is the very foundation of good citizenship” is a Supreme Court majority opinion 50 years ago that still rings true to this day, implying that the right to education is afforded to everyone regardless of their background.

However, as campus safety has been a concern in recent years, universities and colleges across the United States are taking the necessary measures to ensure a safe school environment. Whether or not information on criminal history should be treated as private information and included in college application questions is still a subject of heated debates but there is a measure of acceptance of this practice as a prerogative of the college or university.

In fact, roughly 67% of higher education institutions now require disclosure of prior convictions by all college applicants. About 5% also require ticking of the “criminal history” box and going through criminal history screenings for specific degree programs. Some 25% of these colleges automatically close their doors to violent and sexual offenders while 75% of them view convictions relating to alcohol and drugs as serious factors for non-admission and flat-out reject applicants with prior felony convictions.

That being said, there are neither formal nor legal restrictions governing the process by which colleges look at applicants’ disclosed criminal records. Many decide upon these convictions and legal violations on a case-by-case basis. Schools may require, among other things, letters from the probation officer validating the readiness of the college applicant.

Your criminal record also determines whether or not you will get financial aid. Federal laws dictate that individuals who are incarcerated and wish to study behind bars have limited eligibility for federal student loans or a Federal Pell Grant, which is awarded to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need and does not need to be repaid. Upon release, most limitations on eligibility will be removed EXCEPT if the reason for incarceration was drug-related or involved a sexual offense that subjecting the federal aid applicant to voluntary civil commitment.

It is a challenge for someone with a criminal record to attend a higher education institution and get their degree but it is absolutely possible. If you have a lawbreaking past that is keeping you from attending college to earn the degree you are willing to work hard for, it may be best to talk to an education attorney to know your options.