The Anti-College Rankings

Sexual trauma risk on campus.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

The Trump administration announced that it would loosen guidelines for enforcement of sexual assault laws in colleges and high schools. The underlying claim is that the Obama administration’s instructions were too favorable to women and girls, and biased against men and boys. This claim can be criticized at many levels, the broadest being that American society has been sexist for centuries, with any claim that women have been favored over men being questionable.

America remains a sexist society, especially in high schools and colleges, where girls and women remain the targets of sexual assault. They have not been protected by schools and universities, and it appears their government is forsaking them as well. For fathers and mothers, there is no option but to take their protection into their own hands. A way to start is to publicize those schools and colleges where sexual assaults are more common and educate other parents about those institutions. You should give serious thought to whether these are the places you should send your daughter for an education.

We know that going to college, in particular, is a risk factor for sexual trauma. Thousands of 18-to-22-year-old men and women are placed in close quarters, usually living with each other, for four years. It’s important to realize that this college period of risk is perhaps the highest in any woman’s life. Let’s point out a few basic facts:

1. Colleges (and high schools) may work to hide and minimize sexual assault on campus. Despite their public pronouncements, many, if not most, colleges (and high schools) do not emphasize this problem. It’s a rational reaction: They may seek to avoid the bad publicity that would discourage others from attending their schools. So parents should be conscious that whatever strengths a school promotes, transparency about sexual assault and harassment may not be one of them.

2. Sexual trauma is frequent in colleges. The traditional frequency often cited is 20%. That number, if true, would represent an epidemic.

3. There are a number of qualitative predictors of increased risk of sexual assault. There are few systematic studies of this topic, but lawyers who specialize in assisting victims of sexual assault in high schools and colleges report the following risk factors: prestigious schools; expensive schools; the presence of fraternities; and the presence of athletic scholarships.

What these risk factors share in common is that they attract entitled males, who operate in an ethos of alcohol and sexual aggressiveness. Parents who want to minimize risk to daughters should avoid schools with any three of the above four characteristics. The prototype perpetrator is a male on an athletic scholarship who belongs to a fraternity and attends an expensive and/or prestigious school.

Now to the rankings:  

During the Obama administration, a new requirement was instituted for universities to report sexual assault figures. There is a federal website for campus safety, with all the numbers since 2014 when schools were required to report.

The main critique made of these figures is that they are voluntary and that some schools may report assaults more openly and accurately than others. In general, it is widely accepted that sexual assault is underreported. A reasonably well-established figure is that about 80% are not reported (meaning just one in 5 are). Thus, in the analysis that follows a statistical adjustment was made to multiply reported figures by five. The rankings that follow provide the unadjusted reported rates, and the adjusted rates.    

So here are the numbers, with a ranking of selected universities, mostly East Coast: 

Nassir Ghaemi MD
College sexual trauma rankings
Source: Nassir Ghaemi MD

Where ranges are given, the mean number is taken for adjusted calculations (e.g., for a range of 10-17, the mean of 13.5 is used).

In summary:

1. The average reported U.S. university sexual assault rate for women is about 0.4% per year, or about 2% per year when adjusted for underreporting. That’s about 8% for the entire college experience or 1 in 12 women. Almost all assaults happen on campus.  

2. Some universities are worse, especially private northeastern universities, with a conservative estimation of about 20-25% rates of sexual assault on women over 4 years.

These likely are conservative estimates since the reported figures could be even lower than the 80% underreporting rate that is assumed in this analysis. For example, the University of Texas at Austin has the lowest numbers in the above table, but in an anonymous survey of students and alumni, 15% of women reported having been sexually assaulted ruing their college years there.  If this number is true, then the adjustment multiplier of 4 would have to be changed to about 12 (the unadjusted reported rate of 0.25% per year, or 1 % for four years, multiplied by 12 equals 12%).  In that case, the typical frequency of assaults in the average university (the adjusted rate of 0.39% per year) would approach 20% over 4 years (0.39% multiplied by 12 per year for four years = 18.9%). 

Also, a recent survey found that women later report about a 12-20% range of sexual assault in college. Those numbers would be consistent with these figures as being very conservative estimates.

In sum, with a very conservative estimate based on actual reported sexual assaults with a small adjustment for underreporting, the range of likely sexual assault rates is from 3 to 7% overall for most colleges in this sample over 4 years. That’s about 1 in 20 women. In the highest risk universities, the risk is notably higher, being in the range of 20-25% over 4 years, or one in every four to five women. The average overall is 8% in 4 years or 1 in 12 women.

Since the Trump administration appears to think that these rates of nearly 10% sexual assault rate in college pose a greater risk to men than to women, and since the colleges tend to keep such matters quiet, parents have to protect their daughters themselves. These rankings may help parents weigh the risks as they decide where to send their daughters to college.