Methods: For the 2018-19 and 2019-20 application cycles, a total of 264 CSWE-accredited MSW programs were identified. We carefully reviewed websites to obtain publicly-posted data regarding each MSW program’s practice of asking applicants about their criminal background. Research team members then attempted to contact an admissions representative from each MSW program for clarification of their program’s practices, including how criminal background information was used to inform the admissions process, and in those cases where this information was absent from a program’s website, to determine if a criminal background question was asked of applicants. An admission’s representative from the MSW program or graduate admissions office was available by phone at a rate of 85% (n = 224). We also collected data elements from the 2015 Carnegie Classifications database on college/university level characteristics.
Results: 167 of 264 MSW programs (63%) were found to have criminal background questions on their applications. These questions ranged in the information required, from questions such as “Have you been arrested, charged or convicted of a criminal offense?” to “Do you have any record of misdemeanor or felony charges? If you have a record, you must upload a copy of your disposition paperwork below and discuss the circumstances of the conviction in your personal interest statement.” Several factors were related to the prevalence of asking criminal history questions. Private institutions (71.8%) were more likely to ask such questions compared to public institutions (59.7%), and they also use the information to inform admissions’ decisions at a rate of 55.4% compared to 48.7% for public institutions. Institutions with a lower likelihood of asking criminal history questions include Minority Serving Institutions (47.76%), urban institutions (56.47%), those with a graduate total enrollment of 10,000 or more students (45%), and institutions located in the Far West (38.24%).
Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first national study to examine the prevalence of criminal history questions on graduate school applications. The number of MSW programs asking criminal history questions is surprising, given the deleterious effects its presence can have for applicants that have a history of justice system involvement. MSW programs should carefully consider the necessity and consequences of criminal history questions in admissions processes, bearing in mind the profession’s commitment to social justice and decarceration. Further research is needed to determine where the practice of asking about criminal history is rooted and if it is effective in achieving the stated objectives of student and campus safety.