(c) Nikada

Should colleges be ranked for sexual assault?

Advocates want college rankings to factor in sexual assault, but the idea isn't quite so simple

“The intimacy of a small school with the vibrancy of a world-class university. Student-faculty ratio: 15:1. Acceptance rate: 16 percent. Chances that you will be raped: 1 in 12.”

If some activists and lawmakers have their way, prospective college students would have access to information like this.

They have long lobbied schools to better address the epidemic of sexual assault on their campuses. With little traction, many advocates have turned to the federal government by filing Title IX complaints and to the media. Now a slate of activists and policymakers are taking a new tack, targeting college rankings – higher education’s sacred cow. 

Last week, UltraViolet, a women’s issues advocacy group, launched an online petition urging the Princeton Review, which produces one of the leading college rankings, to include information on colleges’ sexual assault track records. As of Thursday afternoon, the organization said it had collected 34,712 signatures.

“If the quality of the food in the dining hall warrants a couple questions and a rating from the Princeton Review, I would like to think student safety and sexual assault would be important enough,” explained Karin Roland, the campaign director of UltraViolet.

“If schools have a problem with the prevalence of sexual assault on those campuses, those students and those parents have a right to know,” Roland said.

It's an idea that has traction in Washington. Last month, a dozen House members, including two Republicans, went after U.S. News & World Report, which releases the bible of college rankings. In a letter, they urged the publisher to include data on the prevalence of sexual assault, as well as information about the schools' efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

But unlike graduation rate or fraternity membership, a school’s sexual assault problem is difficult to measure, or even see. 

The number problem

U.S. News’ spokeswoman Lucy Lyons said in a statement that they would “welcome the opportunity” to meet with the representatives “to discuss campus safety, particularly sexual assault.”

The Princeton Review said it had looked into the idea, but that there wasn’t reliable or consistent enough data out there. 

“Unfortunately, the information colleges have been asked to report by the government and by other agencies has not been universally defined with clear guidelines sufficient to make such data useful for creating school-to-school comparisons,” it wrote on its website.

The only data schools are required to collect about sexual assault comes from the 1992 federal Clery Act, which mandates that colleges and universities that receive federal funding report certain crimes that occurred on their campuses.

The House members called for U.S. News to use a school’s Clery reports to evaluate rankings. But Clery numbers often don’t add up. As an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed, limitations and loopholes in the law have caused universities to systematically underreport incidents. For example, schools only need to report crimes on campus, so a sexual assault in a fraternity house down the road slips through the cracks.

Sexual assault is also one of the most underreported crimes, and the number of sexual assaults reported on a campus often says more about how much faith students have in their college’s process and how trusty the college is in keeping its books than it does about how well the school addresses sexual assault. 

“We know nationwide [the number of female students assaulted at college] its 1 in 5,” said Annie Clark, who was sexually assaulted as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007, and is now an activist. “When you see a report of zero assaults, you know campuses are underreporting or students don’t feel comfortable enough.”

So using reported numbers to rank schools could have the perverse affect of punishing the colleges that are doing the most to address the problem, and encouraging schools to lie.

Last week, in a gesture of transparency, the Department of Education released a list of the 55 colleges currently facing sexual assault investigations. Their names circulated through the national media, sometimes giving the impression that these schools are among the most wracked by sexual violence.

But for the most part, these are simply the schools where students and alumni bandied together to file Title IX complaints, often thanks to activist groups, faculty advocates and other support. And it includes some of America’s colleges with the strongest traditions of social justice, such as University of California, Berkeley and Occidental College.

“I think there are a number of schools on that list where [the investigation] will be closed very quickly,” said Brett Sokolow, the CEO of the law firm and consultancy the Higher Education Risk Management Group. “They’re just the first ones in this first round.”

The bad school bias

If potential students and their parents really want to know how seriously a college is addressing sexual assault, there are stats they could examine: the number of the sexual assault reports a school receives, the number it actually adjudicates; how often students are found responsible; and how often those students are suspended or expelled.

“If there were 55 reports and only three went through the adjudication process,” said Clark, “that tells you something.” 

Right now, most schools don’t publish those numbers in any clear way. The White House itself has recognized that the numbers out there are bad. In its landmark report released last week, it called on all colleges to start surveying their students, to get a true sense of the scope of the problem.

Currently, a school that is open with its numbers, or has a very aware and activist student body, is more likely to be pummeled in the press. Any ranking would have to be careful to avoid the same bias – because for schools, a reputation for sexual violence can be disastrous.

This year, applications to Dartmouth plummeted 14 percent, the greatest decline in more than two decades. Many on campus see a clear link to the cries of racism and rape that have rattled the picturesque New Hampshire campus for a year.

“Saying sexual assault was happening, Dartmouth was being evil to women, and women of color… we got a lot of press about that,” said Jillian Mayer, who’s part of the Real Talk Dartmouth, a student group that’s organized a wave of protests on campus. “And concerned parents of juniors and seniors in high school we’re reading that, and thinking, ‘There are equivalent schools. Why go to Dartmouth?’”

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