ARTICLE

Old charges can haunt job-hunting college grads

Soon to be graduates of the class of 2009 fill Carver Hawkeye Arena during the graduation ceremony on Saturday May 16th, 2009.  (Ryan Morrison/ Freelance)
Soon to be graduates of the class of 2009 fill Carver Hawkeye Arena during the graduation ceremony on Saturday May 16th, 2009. (Ryan Morrison/ Freelance)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa’s prestigious Tippie College of Business is tops in the percentage of 2011 graduates with a criminal record — a handicap local employers say can disqualify talented job seekers.

More than 18 percent of undergraduates receiving UI business degrees this weekend have at least one non-traffic criminal conviction in Johnson County — the highest rate of any UI college, according to a Gazette and KCRG-TV9 investigation.

This compares to nearly 12 percent of all UI undergraduate graduation candidates.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Joel Rhame, a UI economics major slated to graduate this weekend from the business college.

Rhame, of Cedar Rapids, pleaded guilty to public intoxication in October 2005.

“It’s something that happened my freshman year,” Rhame said. “I don’t think it speaks to my overall character.”

Nonetheless, the Class of 2011 will have to answer for these mistakes when applying to graduate schools or seeking jobs in a tough labor market where unemployment for ages 20-24 is 15 percent — six percentage points higher than the rate for all ages.

“It can make a difference,” recruitment consultant Bill Humbert said about a criminal conviction.

Most employers wouldn’t turn down a candidate because of a lower-level alcohol citation, Humbert said, but multiple tickets or more serious charges can be deal breakers.

“If it’s theft or drunken driving, that’s bad stuff,” said Humbert, of Park City, Utah, and formerly of Marion.

Multiple charges

The Gazette checked the names of 2,867 UI seniors on Iowa Courts Online to identify the ones with non-traffic criminal convictions in Johnson County.

Of these graduation candidates, 332 had at least one criminal conviction. One hundred, or nearly one-third, of those graduates had two or more convictions.

The vast majority of these criminal charges were related to alcohol, with 40 percent being public intoxication, a simple misdemeanor that usually results in a night in the Johnson County Jail and a $100 fine.

Other common charges include underage alcohol possession, public urination, fifth-degree theft and drunken driving.

Grads convicted of crimes in Johnson County have been fined more than $70,000. Three-quarters of the offenders are men.

Reasons unclear

It’s not clear why students earning business degrees have a higher rate of criminal convictions than their UI peers.

“Maybe it’s because the classes are really hard,” said Dustin Comried, a UI junior economics major from Center Point.

Tom Baker, UI associate dean of students, said the thinks business students often are more social than students in other colleges.

“Different students have different personalities,” said Baker, who has worked with UI students for 22 years. “In my experience, our business students are more outgoing, more social.”

There’s also the gender difference. Men make up about 60 percent of enrollment of the business college.

UI grads with the lowest rates of criminal convictions are those in nursing, with 5.6 percent, and medicine and related fields, with 6.3 percent.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the UI’s largest college with 1,784 graduation candidates, has a criminal conviction rate of 10.3 percent.

Background checks

Criminal convictions can hurt graduates’ chances of getting a job in Eastern Iowa, a new UI survey shows.

Of 70 Cedar Rapids and Iowa City companies surveyed this spring, 25 percent said they would disqualify an applicant for a drunken driving conviction, 47 percent for a drug conviction and 78 percent for theft. The survey was conducted by a UI economic development policy class taught by Prof. Richard Funderburg.

Many employers and graduate schools run background checks on applicants or ask them to disclose criminal charges.

“We look for any unlawful conduct in the past seven years,” said Collins Byrd, dean of admissions for the UI College of Law, which requires applicants to list criminal charges, traffic tickets, lawsuits and academic misconduct. “We want to hear charges, expunges — the whole bit.”

Students who admit their mistakes and appear to have moved past their problems likely won’t be barred from law school for one, or even two, minor alcohol infractions, Byrd said. However, three or more charges may show the applicant doesn’t respect the law he or she wants to practice, he said.

The UI’s Carver College of Medicine does background checks on all admitted students through a company called CertiPhi. If the company finds any convictions the applicant didn’t acknowledge, the med school admissions committee will question him or her, said Kathi Huebner, admissions director for the med school.

“The applicant pool is large and very competitive,” Huebner said. “Often committee members may come down to a choice between two equally-qualified applicants, one with a misdemeanor and one without, and are likely to choose the one without.”

Criminal convictions aren’t hurting most business grads, said Allan Boettger, director of career services in the Pomerantz Career Center. A survey of 2010 graduates in business and liberal arts showed nearly 90 percent had jobs or were in graduate school within six months, he said.

However, some professions may be touchier about particular charges.

“If you applied in the banking industry for a job and were documented for something that had to do with money, that might be a red flag for an employer,” Boettger said.

Lower conviction rate

It’s difficult to determine whether UI graduates are better or worse off than grads from other universities when it comes to criminal convictions.

At least one benchmark shows the number of UI students in trouble with the law may be decreasing.

A 2003 investigation by The Gazette showed that 17 percent — or one in six — of UI undergraduate graduation candidates had at least one non-traffic criminal conviction in Johnson County.

The decline in criminal convictions could be due to changes in police enforcement, Baker said. The economic recession may have made it tougher for current UI students to spend big bucks on booze, he said.

“It’s expensive to go out and drink,” Baker said.

A major change since 2003 is an Iowa City ordinance banning people under age 21 from bars after 10 p.m. But most graduating seniors wouldn’t have been affected by that change made in June 2010.

UI officials said they hope the decline signals a change in Iowa City’s alcohol culture. They will wait to see whether binge drinking numbers shrink and if enrollment continues to grow despite the stricter bar scene, said Tom Rocklin, vice president for student life.

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