College Criminal Record: How it Can Affect Your Life

For many students, college is a time of new beginnings. College can be a fresh start in life and the opportunity to hone skills to set one up for a more successful future. However, for those with a criminal record, the consequences of past mistakes can continue to haunt them, even as they pursue higher education.

woman standing between library book shelves

While having a criminal record may not automatically disqualify you from getting admitted or graduating college, it can still affect your chances in a number of ways.


Criminal record can affect your chances of graduating college through the admissions process. Most colleges and universities require applicants to disclose any past convictions or arrests on their college applications or transfer paperwork. “In California, all misdemeanors and felonies will show up on a routine background check,” notes criminal defense attorney George H. Ramos, Jr. Failure to disclose prior criminal convictions can result in serious consequences, including expulsion.

When considering an applicant with a criminal record, college admissions officers will typically evaluate the nature of the offense, the age at the time of the offense, and the length of time since the offense occurred. The admissions team may also consider any evidence of rehabilitation or character development, such as community service or counseling.

In general, colleges and universities are more likely to admit applicants with minor offenses or offenses committed at a young age, especially if they demonstrate that they have learned from their mistakes and taken steps to turn their lives around. Applicants with more serious offenses or a pattern of criminal behavior may be less likely to be admitted.

three men laughing while looking in the laptop inside room

Financial Aid

A criminal record can affect your chances of graduating college through your eligibility for financial aid. Many federal and state financial aid programs have strict eligibility requirements, including restrictions on aid for individuals with certain types of criminal records.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks applicants whether they have ever been convicted of a drug offense while receiving federal student aid. If the answer is yes, the applicant may be ineligible for federal financial aid for a period of time. Some states, have laws that restrict or prohibit financial aid for individuals with certain types of criminal records. In Texas, individuals with felony drug convictions are ineligible for state financial aid programs.

Academic & Professional Opportunities

Even if you are able to graduate college with a criminal record, you may still face obstacles when it comes to academic and professional opportunities. Many graduate programs and professional licensure boards require applicants to disclose their criminal histories. A criminal record may be taken into consideration when making admission or licensure decisions.

Individuals with certain types of criminal records may be ineligible for certain careers, such as teaching, nursing or law enforcement. Some employers may conduct background checks as part of their hiring process and a criminal record may disqualify you from certain opportunities.


Unfortunately, having a criminal record can affect your reputation among your peers and in the community. While most colleges and universities have policies to protect the privacy of student records, your criminal record may become public knowledge if you are involved in a high-profile incident or if your arrest or conviction is reported in the media.

Having a criminal record may lead to stigma or discrimination and thus be more difficult to build relationships with classmates and professors. It may make it more difficult to find employment or housing after graduation, as employers and landlords may conduct background checks and be hesitant to hire or rent to individuals with criminal records.

New Laws Providing More Opportunity

There is an abundance of hope for those who have a criminal record. California passed the Fair Chance Act in 2018, also called the “Ban the Box Law”, aiming to reduce barriers to employment and higher education for individuals with criminal histories.

With the passing of this law, employers with five or more employees are prohibited from asking a job candidate about volition history before making a job offer. The law also protects formerly incarcerated people in the college admissions process. 36 states have followed suit in support of “banning the box.”

What You Can Do

If you have a criminal record and are considering pursuing a college degree, there are several steps you can take to improve your chances of success.

  • Be honest. Always be honest and upfront about your criminal record on your college applications. While it may be tempting to try to hide your past, doing so can have serious consequences, including expulsion.
  • Take steps forward. Take steps to demonstrate your rehabilitation and character development. Examples include volunteering in the community, participating in counseling or therapy or taking courses to improve your skills or knowledge.
  • Consider expungement. Expungement is available for certain individuals and can help give you closure and take a charge off your record. Speak with an experienced expungement attorney in your area to explore your legal optional

A criminal record doesn’t reflect who you are. While it may take time and effort, it is worth it to continue your education and show the world that you are much more than your criminal record.

Similar Posts