Felons Need not Apply: Work Study and Second Chances
My college prides itself on the motto, “Find a need and endeavor to meet it.” We all proudly embrace the notion that everyone deserves a college eduation, and we can provide it. I’ve written many times about the obstacles to that optimistic view: about death and illness and addiction and the myriad other complications that delay or defeat students. I’ve written about whether or not college is for everyone. I’ve even written about a student who did everything right but still could not get a job once he graduated. But what I had never encountered was a student who has done everything right but who can’t get a job at our very own institution.
That is, until I met Uma.
She was not a student of mine, but one I met through a campus organization. If I sound vague about the specifics, it’s because I’m changing names and leaving out details that would identify her for reasons that will soon become clear.
At any rate, the minute I met her I was impressed. She was punctual, self-assured, well-spoken and capable. She had a 3.8 GPA and was the recipient of numerous honors and scholarships. And she had just been denied a work study job for which she was more than qualified because she also happened to be a felon.
She shared this with me the first time I met her, although she asked me to keep it confidential. I was not in a position to discriminate against her because of it, but she had already learned the hard way that others were. She told me the outline of her past: an accessory charge when she was eighteen. Time in prison, followed by difficulty steering clear of trouble for the first few years after her release. But that was ten years ago. Since that time, she has kept her nose and her record clean, has earned one Associates degree, and is working on her second. She’s had a couple of very good jobs and has excellent references. You’d think she’d be a shoo in for work study.
I don’t pretend to understand all of the ins and outs of financial aid, (it is a great luxury that I don’t have to know much about it from my end) but suffice it to say that there are several ways to earn it. There are Pell grants, federal student loans, and federal work study. Uma qualified for the latter, and when she logged in to her financial aid account, she could see the chunk of money that awaited her; all she had to do was nail down a job on campus. Once the aid money is deposited into those three buckets, there’s no way to move it around. It never occurred to her that her own institution would bar her from access to money that the federal government had earmarked for her education.
So, she applied for work study jobs. Based on her great resume, she was granted interviews for nearly every one that she applied for. Several offers came her way -- until the background check kicked in and the offers were withdrawn one by one. However, one potential employer (the supervisor in the department that was a perfect fit for her skills) offered to go to bat for her. He was not concerned about her past. The job was not one that would involve handling money or student records or anything where her trustworthiness would be called into question. She was the very best candidate for the job.
But his appeal fell on deaf ears. The human resources department, the campus ombudsman, every layer of bureaucracy had the same answer: “It’s college policy. We do not hire felons. Ever.”
I know there are very good reasons employers have these policies in place. In an economy where jobs are scarce, shouldn't only the most trustworthy people get them? And should someone who has shown herself to have exercised poor judgment be put in a position of trust? And doesn’t employing people with known criminal histories expose the employer to unnecessary risk and vulnerability? These are tough questions. The simplest way to answer them is to make a sweeping general policy.
But I’d argue that a public institution that claims to be a place where anyone can get a start, or even better, start over, should not make such sweeping policies.
As instructors, we are asked to do everything we can to help students succeed. We are encouraged -- sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly, sometimes even by people in suits -- not to let carved-in-stone policy on our syllabi get in the way of a student’s success. We are not asked to remove obstacles, but to help students navigate them. Sometimes that means giving them a boost, like not counting their fourth absence against their final grade when their kids get sick for the third time in two weeks, or perhaps accepting a late paper when there are extenuating circumstances. We have policies, but we have the freedom -- sometimes the obligation, as educators -- to apply them in the broader context of the student’s education. Personally, I see a big difference between someone who habitually sleeps through his alarm clock because he was playing Call of Duty until 3am, and someone who is late because he’s coming straight to class from third shift and sometimes gets held up.
Making exceptions is hard. It raises questions of fairness and consistency. In many ways, my job would be infinitely easier if I could traffic only in absolutes. But even the institution has safety nets for underperforming students. We have a system of “early alerts” that we send when a student stops attending or falls behind so that counselors can intervene and increase the chances that student will stay the course. If we dealt only in hard policy, why have such a system? Why not say, “Miss so many classes and so many assignments, and you fail. Period. We don’t care why. We don’t care what your personal circumstances are. You’re out.”
But we don’t say this -- or at least, we don’t say it until we have ascertained that the student in question is not interested or invested in their own success, or is not willing to meet us more than halfway. In general, we don’t give up until they do. On good days, I feel good about my college and my part in achieving its mission.
But when I think of Uma’s situation, it makes me feel cynical. If, as an institution, we care about individual students, their circumstances and challenges, and their individual successes, why would we say to someone like her, “We will take your tuition money. We will teach you what you need to know. We will give you the skills to succeed in the workforce. But we won’t hire you. Not now, as a work study student. Not ever. We care more about what you did when you were 18 than what you have done since. You may be the best candidate for the job, but we are too chicken to make an exception to our policy, because look at the can of worms that would open up. We don’t like worms. Sometimes they give us legal trouble. We care about enrollment and retention because numbers matter, not because you matter. We can’t be flexible so you can get the money that the federal government has authorized you to work for. And for heaven’s sake, once we grant you a degree and you are a number in the “plus” column, don’t ask us for a job.”
I know, I know. I’m putting words into a metaphorical mouth. I get ranty when I’m frustrated.
I’m not suggesting that we fling our doors wide to felons of all stripes. I’m not suggesting that felony status not be a consideration when choosing whether or not to hire anyone. However, in a case like Uma’s, when the supervisor in a position to hire her is willing to take a chance, and when she is by far the best qualified candidate for the job, there should be some mechanism by which to petition for an exception. It’s not unprecedented, not even in higher education. In fact, Uma worked at a nearby University until her position was eliminated, and she has a glowing recommendation from them. Another local college states clearly in its HR policy that felony status “may” be a reason to disqualify an applicant -- which also implies that in some cases, it may not. And then there’s the federal government, which gave her the work study money in the first place. Not even they are willing to make a blanket exclusion because of her record.
Of course, the argument might be made that felons are dangerous. But if that is true, why is it okay for one to sit next to you in class, but not to answer the phones in the admissions office or testing center? And in a state that is currently entertaining legislation to expand the rights of people carrying concealed weapons to allow them onto college campuses, can we really say that we are concerned about safety? (Oh, right. Those people are going to use guns to protect themselves. Never mind. That’s another rant.)
Many will argue that when someone commits a crime, she forfeits her rights, and any discrimination that results down the road -- whether in the short or long term -- is a result of her own bad choices. On paper, that seems reasonable in many cases. That’s why we put people in jail for life. But if a person serves her time and upon her release, decides to better herself, shouldn't the very place she comes to do that -- a community college -- give her a chance? And if we don’t, aren’t we then party to relegating her to menial jobs or the welfare rolls? If she wanted to, Uma once told me, she could take her financial aid money, buy a “package,” and make enough money selling drugs to finance her education and then some. She knows how to do this because she has seen people do it. She is surrounded by people who have resorted to dealing because doors kept slamming in their faces. But Uma is determined, now that she has another chance, to do it right, even though, without the work study money, she can barely make ends meet.
Recently, my campus hosted an author for a series of talks and events. He had written a memoir about his 40+ year incarceration for killing a man, a crime he admits to committing when he was 18 years old. While serving time for second degree murder, he helped to reform the prison system. He studied the law. He started a prison newspaper. He read everything he could get his hands on. He befriended the warden. And finally, after over 40 years, he had his sentence reduced to manslaughter after proving that the jury (all white men), indeed, the entire legal system, had been biased against him. His life sentence was commuted, and he is a free man.
We hosted him, we dined with him, we heard him speak. We held him up in front of at-risk students as an example of how anyone can rise above the most desperate circumstance, as a person who is not letting his history define him. Yes, a felon can write a memoir, win an international literary award, and be an inspiration to our students, but if he asked us for a job, we would not hire him. No, sir.
Uma is trying to get it right this time. She is tenacious and sassy and smart. And she is pissed that she is constantly swimming against the tide to claim a new future for herself. I’m not suggesting that anyone jump in to save her, but the least we can do is throw her a life preserver. She has a need. We should endeavor to meet it, at least halfway.
*Read more about my students at my blog, Notes from the Professor.