Methodology: Crime on College Campuses

NerdWallet’s methodology for our analysis of crime on college campuses

NerdWallet used crime data reported to the Department of Education in accordance with the Clery Act spanning the years 2008-2010. We then refined the data in this manner:

  • We considered only four-year universities with more than 1,000 students;
  • We ensured that for a given school, every crime took place on one campus;
  • We only included campuses located in the 50 United States and Washington, D.C.;
  • We used the 2010 student enrollment statistics to calculate per-capita crime.

Location Definitions:

On-campus: University-owned property in a contiguous area surrounding the campus.

Note: What the DoE lists as “public property,” we consider on-campus. This is because the DoE’s definition of public property is land that is not owned by the university but is contained within or immediately adjacent to the campus, such as a privately owned parking lot or city-owned road running through the middle of campus.

Residence hall: Student housing facilities.

Note: In our statistics, we list residence hall and on-campus crimes separately. However, the DoE considers residence halls to be a subset of on-campus crime. For example, if NerdWallet reports that there were 5 sexual assaults in residence halls and 5 on campus, the DoE statistics will list this as 5 in residence halls and 10 on campus.

Off-campus: The DoE considers off-campus (non-campus) property to be geographically distinct from the main campus and owned by the university, a university-controlled organization (such as a fraternity or sorority) or an institution that directly supports the university.

NerdWallet Crime Definitions:

Violent crime: NerdWallet considers the following to be violent crime: murder, negligent murder, forcible sexual offenses, robbery, and aggravated assault.

Note: All intentional fires are considered to be arson, even if the incident is only a student lighting something on fire in the bathroom. If an intentional fire causes severe injury or death, it is counted as both arson and aggravated assault or murder. Therefore, we can capture most of the severe and malicious cases of arson, while filtering out most of the cases that are just mischief.

Theft & Defacement: NerdWallet considers the following to be theft or defacement of property: robbery, burglary, vehicular theft, arson, vandalism and larceny.

Note: this category is not nearly as comprehensive as we’d like. Larceny – theft without breaking and entering or violence – and vandalism are reported only if it they are considered hate crimes. Burglary cases have a strict definition of unlawful entry of a building. For example, if a student swipes into her dorm and the thief follows her in, he did not trespass and the crime would not be counted, and neither would a student who steals her dormmate’s latop.

Sexual assault: NerdWallet considers only forcible sexual assault in our crime statistics, and excludes non-forcible assault, defined by the DoE as statutory rape and incest.

DoE Crime Definitions:

Crime Definition Includes Excludes
Murder Willful killing of one human being by another Homicides Suicide, fetal death, traffic death, accidents
Negligent Murder Killing of another person through gross negligence “Something a reasonable and prudent person would not do” Deaths due to own negligence, traffic death, accidents
Forcible Sexual Offense Any sexual act against another person, either against their will or where the victim is incapable of giving consent Rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, fondling Statutory rape that would not otherwise be considered an offense
Non-Forcible Sexual Offenses Non-forcible, unlawful sexual intercourse Incest, statutory rape Non-forcible sexual offense where the victim is not capable of giving consent – this counts as forcible
Robbery Taking or attempting to take something of value from someone else, by use of force, threat of force, violence, or putting the person in fear Any crime where something is taken by force or threat of force, including if the perpetrator pretends to have a weapon but doesn’t actually possess one Theft without use or threat of force, such as pickpocketing
Aggravated Assault Attack by one person on another with the purpose of inflicting severe injury Attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with disease Less serious assaults, for example with the intent to slightly injure someone
Burglary Unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft Entering or attempting to enter a building, tresspassing with the intent to steal or commit a felony Vehicle theft, shoplifting, stealing from cash registers, stealing from open-access areas, stealing with lawful access (ie, a student lets the thief into the building)
Motor Vehicle Theft Stealing any “self-propelled vehicle,” even if the vehicle is later abandoned Forcibly entering a building to steal a vehicle (counts as burglary), stealing property from a vehicle Stealing from a vehicle, entering a building to steal a vehicle (counts as burglary)
Arson Willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn personal property, buildings, etc. Fires determined through investigation to have been deliberately set Fires of suspicious or unknown origin

Caveats

The goal of our tool is to provide an accurate picture of which colleges are most afflicted by crimes on a regular basis, rather than schools rattled by extremely violent, extremely rare incidents. To that end, we exclude non-violent offenses and avoid giving outsize influence to black-swan crimes like murder. However, no data set is perfect. With these caveats in mind, we hope to provide an objective, transparent and relevant comparison of crime on college campuses:

Omissions in the data itself

Underreporting. The largest flaw in the data is that not all crimes are reported to the campus police, and a university whose students feel comfortable interacting with security is unfairly punished compared to one where students stay silent.

Geographic location. Colleges are not required to report crimes that did not take place on campus or immediately adjacent to the main campus. A student body that often goes off-campus may fall victim to crimes that do not appear in the Clery Act data.

Other crimes. The Clery Act does not require colleges to disclose a large number of relevant crimes. A student’s laptop stolen by a hallmate, or vandalism or pickpocketing not motivated by bias, would not be reported.

Cautions in interpreting the data

The Clery Act data answers a very specific question: How many incidents of certain crimes did a campus report during a given time period? Because of the limitations mentioned above, we want to emphasize that the data imperfectly answers:

Which college has the most incidents of a certain crime? (underreporting)

Can I walk on and around campus safely? (geographic location)

What’s the safest college? (other crimes and underreporting)

We hope that this data empowers students, parents and administrators in making choices and policies, and serves as a jumping-off point for deeper learning. While we cannot give easy answers (“this college is safe”) we do hope to provide information in a transparent manner.