Consider Campus Crime When Evaluating Colleges

US News

To a high school senior, certain factors may be more important than others when choosing a university. Extended meal plans, Greek life, male-to-female ratio...college crime? Unfortunately, college crime rates are usually overlooked in the selection process, but they're still an important factor when choosing a home for the next four years.

What makes this even more difficult is the fact that college crime statistics can be confusing, inaccurate, and often misinterpreted. This may leave students (or even more so, their parents) with misconceptions about a university's reputation--or, worse, a false sense of security.

The Clery Act

In 1982, the Clery Act was passed after the tragedy of 19-year-old Jeanne Clery's death struck Lehigh University. This statute requires all colleges and universities that participate in financial aid programs disclose information about crime on or near campus. The crimes reported include:

--Murder

--Negligent manslaughter

--Forcible/non-forcible sexual assault

--Robbery

--Aggravated assault

--Burglary

--Arson

--Vehicle theft

--Other charges for arrest, including drug/alcohol/illegal weapons possession

The statute also requires that institutions make note if any crimes or incidents resulting in bodily injury were "hate crimes."

Though this data may seem like an accurate depiction of a university's crime activity, the information is incredibly confusing. For example, the Department of Education lists public property as land that is not technically owned by the university but is within or adjacent to the campus. So, if a crime were to happen in a privately owned parking lot on campus or a city-owned road running through the middle of campus, the crime would be considered "off-campus."

In addition, crimes in the residence halls are double counted as on-campus crimes. This means if there were five incidents in the residence halls and five incidents on campus, the Department of Education would report five in residence halls and 10 on campus. On top of that, the numbers can't account for underreporting on certain crimes, like vandalism or pickpocketing, not motivated by bias. It's difficult to get an accurate depiction of a campus' college crime profile when it's such a chore just looking at the numbers.

A Skewed Sense of Security

Unfortunately, we can't believe everything we read on the Internet. If one were to look up college crime statistics on the Web, one look at the Department of Education's numbers would send them running. Sadly, many of the other available resources may be easier to digest, but they're usually skewed and manipulated to distort college reputations for dramatic effect.

For example, The Daily Beast does an annual tally and "analysis" of college crime to produce Top 25 lists of universities consisting of the most crime-rattled, the safest, and a number of other superlatives that are not only unnecessary, but also inaccurate.

The Daily Beast takes the Department of Education's crime statistics and applies a weighted ranking system based on the severity of a crime. Burglary is at the low end of the scale while murder is ranked highest at 20 times worse than burglary. Though one crime may be more severe than the other, The Daily Beast somewhat invalidates its system by not including accounts of sexual assault whatsoever. Out of 500 universities, all four-year, public/private universities with 6,000 or more students, The Daily Beast puts together a list of the 25 top universities in particular categories. Though the results are jarring, they're based on a subjective decision that robbery is six times as bad as burglary and that sexual assaults shouldn't factor into a safety ranking.

Objective Numbers, Objective Study

Many sources, like The Daily Beast, complicate the process by doing the thinking for you. In reality, the numbers speak for themselves. NerdWallet conducted a study of the same Department of Education statistics, but instead of weighing and manipulating the information to rank schools, it simplified the statistics.

NerdWallet's methodology refined the reported data by considering only four-year universities in the 50 states and Washington D.C. with 1,000 or more students; ensuring that for a given school, every crime took place on campus; and used the 2010 student enrollment statistics to calculate per-capita crime.

The study also separated residence hall and on-campus crimes into two figures, and considered crimes on private or city-owned property on or adjacent to the campus as on-campus crimes. After analyzing the data, NerdWallet found that a majority of the universities that appeared on "The Daily Beast's Top 25 Most Crime-Rattled Colleges" don't even make the top 50. A single murder shot universities up the ranks whether or not it was a one-off incident. Since The Daily Beast didn't take outliers into account, an uncharacteristic crime guaranteed a university a top spot on the dangerous college list.

Imparting Knowledge, Not Fear

NerdWallet's ultimate goal is transparency--something that should be standard when it comes to objective government data. The best way to paint an accurate picture of a college's crime rate is to find the happy medium between outrageous, inaccurate ranking systems and convoluted raw data. The goal is to replace overall misunderstanding and fear with solid figures that will help parents and students make an informed decision for themselves.

Angie Picardo is an analyst at NerdWallet.com, whose college comparison tools help students and parents make informed decisions.

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