Ranking of colleges by reported rapes ignites criticism

Experts on sexual assault say we should encourage schools to make reporting easier

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, editor

Higher education experts are debating the wisdom of a recent Washington Post article that ranks schools according to reports of rape on campus.

The Washington Post notes in the second paragraph of its article that victim advocates say rising reports of sexual assault are a positive trend. And in a follow-up article this week, the Post reports that experts consider it "worrisome" that so many colleges report zero campus rapes.

Nevertheless, many researchers and victim advocates say the ranking should not have been made in the first place.

Media outlets reported on the Post's list with the kind of headlines that make university officials cringe:

  • "[College] ranks in the top 10 among colleges for reported rapes;"
  • "Report: [University] had most reported rapes in 2014;" and
  • "[College] ranked second in national study of reports of campus rapes."

The ranking gives the impression that schools with higher rates are unsafe, says Laura Dunn, founder and executive director of victim advocacy group SurvJustice. This is counterproductive. "We don't want to push reports into the shadows; we want (assaults) to be reported and dealt with appropriately," Dunn says.

In December 2015, American Association of University Women (AAUW) conducted its own analysis of Clery Act data and found that 90% of colleges and universities reported zero rapes in 2014. Earlier that same year, about 78% of college presidents said in a survey that sexual assault is not a major problem on their campus. And it's clear that rankings in other areas can change universities' behavior, especially rankings that could influence enrollment and reputation.

Recent research from EAB reiterates that sexual violence is widely underreported and emphasizes that significant personal and institutional barriers prevent survivors from reporting instances of sexual misconduct on campus.

"Over the last few years, many institutions have invested in building a culture of reporting on campus to encourage students to come forward. Efforts to expand reporting options and clarify reporting processes can lead to an increased number of students utilizing campus reporting options and does not necessarily indicate an unsafe campus community," says Liz Brown, an EAB expert on student affairs. 

There's a clear opportunity at many institutions to improve reporting options. For example, a 2015 survey found that just one-third of college websites included specific, helpful information for victims. And just 15% provided instructions for filing an anonymous report.

Three website updates that will make your prevention resources more accessible

Breaking down the data

The Post "took great care" to contextualize its ranking, Education Editor Josh White told Inside Higher Ed. White points out that the story explains how rising report numbers can be interpreted as a positive trend and includes quotes from university administrators reinforcing that view.

The Post used Clery Act data from a Department of Education website to create its list. The numbers only refer to crime that happened on campus, meaning that urban institutions often have fewer reports while rural institutions with many students living on-campus see more reports.

It's critical to consider the full context when looking at Clery data, says Mary P. Koss, professor of public health at the University of Arizona and a leading researcher on campus sexual assault.

"Clery data tells us one thing: how many rapes are reported by students and honestly recorded on a Clery report," says John Foubert, professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University and founder of One in Four, a sexual assault prevention group. 

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"The only use I see for it is to gauge how far an institution needs to go in closing the gap between reported rape and the actual rate, which needs to be determined by anonymous surveys," Foubert says. One commonly cited—and commonly questioned—statistic estimates that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time in college.

The managing director of End Rape on Campus, Anna Voremberg, also emphasizes the importance of context. "I don't think we should be comparing Dartmouth to Baylor or Brown to Oregon. Those are really different schools with very unique problems. We need to understand what's going on at each campus," she says (Nelson, Vox, 6/8; Anderson, Washington Post, 6/7; Anderson, Washington Post, 6/15; New, Inside Higher Ed, 6/13).

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