Here’s a statistic that may startle you—and it should: 4 out of every 5 college females experience sexual assault in some form during their time on campus. That’s despite often robust college sexual harassment policies. So then why isn’t campus sexual harassment and assault being diminished?

When people think about the issue of sexual assault on campus, they tend to initially go to a place of how these incidents are adjudicated or enforced after harm has already occurred, or the things that educational institutions need to do to remain compliant with federal and state legislation. As statistics on sexual harassment on college campuses demonstrate, however, this is not enough.

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Prevention work, though, is really about going much further upstream to think about the root causes of sexual assault on college campuses.  How can we get at some of the knowledge, attitude, behavioral or perception-related contributing factors and use education to empower students to create change in the relationships and the way they’re engaging their communities?

Moving From  Compliance to Truly Preventing Sexual Harassment on Campus

First, it’s important to recognize that ensuring a safe campus environment—for everyone—is not just important to comply with Title IX, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities, or because it’s inherently and obviously the right thing to do. 

We also now serve students who are increasingly concerned about social issues and social impact. We need to think about the long-term ramifications of the challenges that face us, not just on the mission of higher education because, of course, it’s the right thing to do and, of course, Title IX exists in education and requires that we do education and programming around things like this.

But also because it’s the smart thing to do.

Smart Thinking 

The most successful universities around the country understand the critical importance of ensuring a campus community that is safe, supportive, and inclusive. Not just because legislation mandates that they do so. Not just because they fear the damage that lawsuits can have on their brands. But for two other, very important reasons:

  • Our students are increasingly socially conscious, issue-oriented, and activism-inclined. They expect that their colleges and universities will be talking about these issues in a deep, meaningful, and transparent way. 
  • This type of harm can completely derail the student experience—cause them to perform more poorly academically, or to think about transferring or dropping out entirely—so it impacts our mission and our business.

We need to begin thinking differently about college sexual harassment prevention programs, not just as expenses that need to be minimized in order to check the box of requirements, but as investments that we need to be maximizing to get the ROI on the mission and vision and business of our institutions.

Benefits For the Bottom Line and, Ultimately, the World

Leading institutions are starting to look not at how they can put the crisis behind them when something egregious happens, but how they can put the crisis ahead of them by getting in front of the issue systemically. When harm occurs it’s really hard to undo the mental impact that these situations can have, let alone the human impact on those who have been affected. It’s far better to get ahead of things by thinking systemically and strategically about creating a campus culture that is supportive and harassment-free. 

When we look at those colleges and universities that have better programs, stronger policies, and are engaged in strategic planning around prevention initiatives and that are making an investment in programs to keep students safe and to create inclusive communities, we see real measurable impacts. In fact, even a modest increase in the extent to which a campus community is viewed as safe and inclusive can have a major impact on ROI. If you think about a campus with 10,000 students that can boost retention just one percent a year, over a 4-6 year period you’re talking about millions of dollars recouped by not having to continually refill the seats of students who might have left campus due to concern over personal harm or values misalignment with the campus community. 

And, of course, ultimately, it’s not just the campus community that benefits from preventing sexual harassment on campus—it’s the community at large. It’s the companies that are able to recruit and retrain not just well-educated students, but culturally competent, mission-driven students—students who will contribute to the success, safety, and wellness of companies, communities, and, truly, of the world. 

Set the Tone for the Future of Your Institution

Prevention education is one of the most sound investments an institution can make, and new data show that issues of safety and well-being impact all stages of the student lifecycle.