How campus safety could affect college choices

College students in a classroom.

Campus safety is on the minds of many college-age women these days. Female students were among the targets in the deadly attacks last week near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But even before then, sexual harassment and assault on college campuses were making headlines.

In the past couple months, the U.S Department of Education has published the names of about 60 schools its Office for Civil Rights is investigating for their handling of Title IX offenses, which involve sexual violence (see the full list here).

And the women's advocacy group UltraViolet has launched ad campaigns against Harvard, Dartmouth and other universities over their handling of campus assaults.

“Where we're coming from is just a place of acknowledging that many colleges have completely failed their students on this issue,” says UltraViolet co-founder Shaunna Thomas.

Thomas believes her group has helped steer prospective student away from Dartmouth. But the school points out that the UltraViolet campaign was launched after the applications deadline this year and had no bearing on a 14 percent decline in applications, which it attributes instead to a host of factors, including demographic changes

Application and enrollment levels rise and fall for all sorts of reasons, according to Peter Lake, director of the Center for Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law. Lake, an expert on campus safety, says it would be difficult to single out the role campus safety is playing.

“Everyone is watching to see just how sensitive consumers of higher education are to safety issues,” says Lake.

Liya Tessima, a high school student in St. Paul, Minnesota, says safety didn’t influence her choice of schools. She’s headed to St. Olaf College this fall. The school is located in a rural part of Minnesota, and Tessima says she thinks she will feel safe there. But that didn’t lead her to choose St. Olaf’s over more urban schools, where crime is more prevalent.

"I never really considered it that way," she says. Tessima notes that St. Olaf’s biology department was its greatest selling point for her.

Tessima’s friend Kweh-ley Paw will go to a big urban school, the University of Minnesota. Paw is nervous about campus safety. She says her parents are, too.

“So they're going to let me come home whenever I feel like it,” she says.

Nevertheless, Paw says she hasn't checked out the university's reputation for handling assaults.

Several groups are pressuring college ranking services like the Princeton Review to factor campus safety into their rankings. The Princeton Review says not all that information is public and there would be no uniform way to report it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that the UltraViolet campaign began after Dartmouth’s application deadline. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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