Study author Carol Runyan, professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora, Colo., said colleges nationwide ramped up background checks after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people were killed and 17 were wounded.
Runyan found only 3.3 percent of college seniors who engaged in misconduct actually reported pre-college criminal histories during the admissions process, and just 8.5 percent of applicants with a criminal history were charged with misconduct during college.
"In an effort to reduce campus crime, more than half of all American colleges ask applicants about their criminal histories or require criminal background checks," Runyan said in a statement. "But there is no real evidence to show this reduces campus crime."
The study surveyed 6,972 students at a large southern university. The study found students with criminal records prior to college were more likely to commit crimes once admitted but the screening process rarely identified them.
"We didn't look at cheating or minor alcohol offenses," Runyan said. "We focused on significant offenses like assault, robbery, property crimes, driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana use and other drug-related crimes."
Runyan's findings indicate students who engaged in criminal activity during college were more likely to have engaged in misconduct prior to college, whether they admitted it on their applications or not.
However, current screening questions on the college application often fail to detect which students will engage in misconduct during college and most who have records before college don't seem to continue the behaviors in college.
The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention,is scheduled to be presented at a conference in June.