Does a pot bust trump a 4.0 GPA?

Does a pot bust trump a 4.0 GPA?
Student supervisor Rebekah Hughes and assistant Elezer Nagus sort through applications at the UCLA admissions office. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
As campus administrators worry about how to prevent violence like last spring's Virginia Tech shootings, students applying to college increasingly face queries about their past behavior: Were they ever severely disciplined in high school? Have they been convicted of a crime?

Although such questions were added to a widely used college application form months before the massacre at Virginia Tech, admissions officers say that the murders made them more vigilant about students' personal troubles. They say that they won't reject otherwise strong applicants because of one schoolyard fight or a beer arrest, but they may be wary of troubling patterns.

Critics contend that the form allows colleges to invade private matters better left to the law and high school counselors. And the extra attention is raising anxiety among high school seniors.

"I'm really stressing myself out about this. Is it worth it to apply? Is this going to cancel out all my virtues?" asked an Oregon teenager with a stellar academic record who is petrified that colleges will learn about his conviction four years ago for shoplifting a shirt.

The student, who requested anonymity, said he has only applied to universities that do not ask about such issues and he is hesitant to apply to those that do by their January deadlines. He concedes that what he did was wrong but said colleges should only ask about violence or chronic cheating, not a one-time foolish mistake such as his.

The student, and others like him, are worried about the Common Application, a mainly online form shared by 315 schools, predominantly private ones, including Harvard, Stanford and Caltech.

Last year, it began asking students -- and their counselors -- about any suspensions, dismissals or probationary terms because of academic or behavioral misconduct and whether students had been "convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime." The applicants are encouraged to explain the incidents. College admissions counselors realize that "not every 17-year-old is a perfect human being," said Seth Allen, president-elect of the Common Application, the nonprofit organization that administers the form. But a campus should know about infractions -- even juvenile records that may have been expunged -- so it can decide whether students should "be part of our community," he said.

In the past, less than about half of Common Application members asked similar questions on separate applications, estimated Allen, who is also dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College in Iowa. Schools wanted the questions added to the shared application because, in general, institutions "are being held to a greater standard of accountability," he said.

A tiny amount of applicants confessed. Of the 266,087 students who used the Common Application last year, only 2.32% said they received school discipline, and only about 0.25% reported a conviction.

Officials said they had no idea how many students might conceal their pasts and they acknowledge that some counselors do not make full disclosure. Nevertheless, most colleges say that they find the questions useful. Colleges do not independently investigate an applicant unless they get hints of serious trouble in the student's past.

Many colleges say that the Virginia Tech tragedy forced them to look more closely at liability and responsibility issues during admissions. However, critics stress that Seung-hui Cho, the gunman who killed 32 people and himself, apparently had no arrests or discipline record.

The Common Application questions are "terrible, terrible policy," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Nassirian said the questions are not likely to catch the "next Jack the Ripper" but are more likely to harm "the perfectly ordinary mischievous kid without much utility in preventing the next tragedy."

Southern California high school counselors speculate that some applicants now steer clear of the Common Application and apply only to the University of California and Cal State University systems, which don't probe in that manner and have no plans to change their policy.

Among some already nervous college applicants, the new questions make this tense time of year even worse. Internet chat rooms, such as the popular College Confidential, are sprinkled with debates about disclosures and tips on essays that treat a past infraction "as a learning experience" en route to maturity.

In a telephone interview, one student conceded the foolishness of bringing an air gun to school for a freshman technology assignment: create a Rube Goldberg contraption to pop balloons. Any weapons possession triggers automatic suspension from his Michigan high school, he said, requesting anonymity, as did other students interviewed for this story.

Now a senior, he is filling out the Common Application, writing: "I did something stupid. I was at fault. But I am not a threat to anybody." His counselor will back him up, he said.

A student from Northern California was busted for marijuana possession and suspended from a private high school. He is acknowledging that and also writing about "how I grew from the experience." However, he is pessimistic about his chances at top colleges.

The anxiety sometimes reaches unwarranted levels.

At the Webb Schools in Claremont, a student recently asked whether he had to reveal what the private residential institution calls an on-campus suspension, basically a cleaning assignment for sleeping past breakfast.

"The kid was scared to death," said Hector Martinez, Webb Schools' director of college guidance. He told the student that colleges are not interested in such minor infractions.

However, Martinez said he urges disclosure of anything serious, even if no formal charges or school punishment were involved. That was the case of a student in trouble a couple of years ago because of a rowdy party at home. Although police dropped the case, "it was important that the student take responsibility," he said.

Martinez assured colleges that the student was "just a kid who had a party and things got a little out of control." The student wound up at a prestigious university in the Midwest.

Katy Murphy, a college counselor at Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose, said she encourages students to disclose significant troubles. But the Catholic school for boys won't respond to the Common Application's counselor questions because she said they can be unfair. Instead, Bellarmine sends its own evaluations, without reporting suspensions.

USC does not use the Common Application but has had similar questions for years. Timothy Brunold, associate dean and director of undergraduate admission, estimated that fewer than 100 out of about 34,000 freshman applicants last year answered yes to any of them and that only a handful were rejected because of behavior or cheating.

Pomona College, which now uses the Common Application, asked about disciplinary problems for many years, according to Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admissions. Pomona will not accept students if their high schools do not answer the questions; as a result, even reluctant counselors have complied, he said.

Pomona won't reject a student suspended for smoking cigarettes at school.

Still, he added, "a cigarette is different from a theft of an exam, which is different from chasing someone down the hall with a knife."

Such information is important because students come to campus not just to study, but to live together. "This is a signal that we care about these things. And we do," Poch said.