Crime Without Context: Analyses of Campus Crime are Lacking

As college students flock to their campuses, some for the first time, it’s only natural that they and their parents be concerned with the university’s safety. Yet the most widely cited data for college crime is often inadequately detailed and misunderstood, which can damage a university’s reputation or leave students with a false sense of security.

From objective government data to subjective verdict

Using data reported by the universities to the Department of Education under the Clery Act, a number of news outlets and college comparison sites have ranked the “least safe” and “safest” college campuses in the United States. These comparisons, which serve as a guide to prospective students and caution to current ones, can often be misleading:

  • Subjective weighting systems assigning severities to different crimes give outsize influence to a few tragic yet atypical events.
    • An analysis by the Daily Beast, for example, did not include rape in its safety calculations, while the schools that led the rankings had a spate of isolated violent acts.
  • Incomplete explanation of data leads to misinterpretation.
    • A bored student lighting paper on fire is recorded as arson, a definition not intuitive to parents or students.
  • Omissions in the data itself are rarely mentioned.
    • Theft without injury or trespassing, for example, is not recorded unless it is considered a hate crime; nor are schools required to report crimes that occur on privately owned, off-campus housing.

Our goal is transparency. Current efforts to quantify crime rely on subjective analysis that can unfairly implicate or exonerate a school, while the raw data is just too confusing for concerned students or parents to understand.

To that end, we try to be very clear: What questions do these numbers answer? What are the limitations, and why should you be careful in interpreting them?

When honesty is the best policy

Rankings of college crime using the Department of Education data often lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. NerdWallet hopes to provide a clear explanation of the statistics and the assumptions that underlie them.

“The data itself is rife with exemptions and technicalities, and adding a subjective analysis only adds to parents’ and students’ confusion,” says Sekar. “Sometimes the best way to empower college students is to provide the data and let them draw their own informed conclusions.”