LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Common Application used for college admissions at more than 600 institutions is changing a question it asks about student criminal records, as the U.S. Department of Education urged schools Monday to consider dropping the question altogether.

The Common Application for the upcoming school year will still ask whether students have been found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony but remove part of the question asking about any other crimes, spokeswoman Aba Blankson told The Associated Press.

“We realized that was a place of ambiguity and so that could cause some angst for students,” Blankson said.

Speaking in Los Angeles, U.S. Education Secretary John King called it “an important step forward,” but also urged the organization to consider alternative approaches outlined in a guide for colleges released Monday.

The Department of Education document encourages schools to remove questions about a student’s criminal record in the early stages of college applications, noting such inquiries can have a “chilling effect” and discourage otherwise qualified candidates from applying.

“Those who have paid their debt and served their sentences deserve an equal chance to learn and thrive,” King wrote.

The guide comes as students and civil rights organizations have pushed universities to drop questions about criminal records. While many of the nation’s largest universities, including the University of California system, do not ask any questions about a student’s criminal record, a majority still do. Others like New York University review a student’s criminal record after making an initial admissions decision.

Advocates in favor of dropping the question argue it creates a barrier to college access at a time when higher education is considered vital to advancing in the workforce. They also highlight data showing that black and other minority students are suspended and referred to law enforcement at disproportionate rates.

“This guidance will help tear down a significant barrier which unfairly excluded many African American and minority student applicants seeking access to college classrooms,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has encouraged schools to remove questions about criminal records on college applications.

While the Department of Education acknowledged there is limited research on any link between criminal history and campus safety, King said what information does exists suggests schools that admit students with a record do not have more crime than those who don’t.

The Common Application added questions about criminal records and discipline at the request of participating universities in 2006-07. In January, New York University asked the Common Application to review whether the queries do anything to make schools safer or discourage minorities from applying.

Blankson said a question that asks students whether they have been subject to disciplinary action in high school for academic or behavioral misconduct will not be changed.

The change made to the criminal record question was shared with member institutions last week, Blankson said.