In 2017, the Maryland legislature passed a “ban the box” bill that removed the question about criminal convictions from applications to Maryland colleges. The legislation was vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan. But when the legislature reconvened in January 2018, they overturned the veto, removing a barrier to higher education for many people.
For Elyshia Aseltine, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Towson University (TU), the legislation presented an opportunity. Having studied the criminal justice system and taught in prison education programs for years, she wondered what it would really look like to support students with criminal records who want to go to college.
Access to higher education greatly improves outcomes for formerly incarcerated people – increasing employment opportunities and reducing recidivism rates. Formerly incarcerated people with a GED have an unemployment rate to 33 percent, while those with a Bachelor’s degree have an unemployment rate of 4 percent. But even without the question on the application, there are still many barriers for college students with criminal records, including finding stable housing, employment, and reliable transportation. It can also be more difficult to access financial aid.
“There are just so many positives to connecting people with records to higher education – improving individual outcomes, participating in employment markets, building the tax base,” says Aseltine. “For TU, as a liberal arts university, we also have a commitment to education for personal growth and involvement in the community. This is an opportunity that many people are cut off from when they have a record. Higher education keeps them engaged in the community, in our civic life.”
A few years ago, TU started a program to support partnerships with the greater Baltimore community, called the BTU. Aseltine applied for funds from BTU to explore what a formal network of support for students with records would look like. People from key support departments like financial aid and HR are engaged in the project.
As an OSI Community Fellow, Aseltine will work to formalize and establish Fair Chance Higher Education, to remove barriers, both external and internal, and better support students with criminal records, starting with the application process and continuing after graduation. She plans to create a center where students can go for help. The program will train university staff, engage navigators to support students, and create a semi-formal peer network for additional emotional and social support.
“There is support on campus for this initiative,” Aseltine says. “But there isn’t infrastructure for it. Building that takes time. The OSI Community Fellowship will buy me time to build that foundation and create buy-in that I didn’t have as a full-time faculty member.”
While the program will be based at TU, it will support any student through the college process, no matter where they end up going. Modeled after California’s Project Rebound, a statewide program, Aseltine wants Fair Chance to serve as an example for the entire system of state colleges and universities.
“I know I’ll be successful when I stand at graduation and see students crossing the stage and getting degrees,” she says.