Campus Climate Surveys: A finger on the pulse and the purse strings of higher education

biden not alone

July’s release of findings from Senator Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) survey of over four
hundred institutions of higher education highlighted a range of shortcomings in efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault on our nation’s campuses. While most would agree that the heightened federal focus on addressing campus sexual assault is a good thing, very few institutions have an accurate sense of the magnitude of sexual assault on their campus.

According to McCaskill’s survey results, only 16% of campus respondents conduct confidential student surveys to assess the prevalence of sexual violence, attitudes related to this issue, and how it is being addressed at their school. These “climate surveys” were a key recommendation in April’s release of the “Not Alone” report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill introduced on July 30, would make climate surveys an annual requirement.

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This momentum has led to public statements decrying climate surveys as yet another unfunded mandate for campuses. Indeed, those likely to be responsible for enacting such a mandate on campuses are already facing increased pressure on their (often inadequate) resources to comply with more stringent standards around reporting offenses, responding to incidences, and prevention education. While funding and staffing are valid concerns, there may be additional, and often unspoken, resistance among many higher education leaders around facing the fact that they, too, may have a sexual assault problem.

The reluctance of campus authorities to recognize and outwardly take on sexual assault at their school is not new. Most notably, the cover up of the rape and murder of a Lehigh University student in 1986 prompted the passage of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, a landmark legislation that clearly outlines and enforces campuses’ crime reporting responsibilities (and now contains the mandates of what is commonly referred to as Campus SaVE). More recently, a 2014 survey by Gallup and Inside Higher Education found that ~70% of college presidents generally feel campuses need to do more to respond to sexual assault. The vast majority of these same presidents (roughly 95%), when asked about their own institution’s efforts, felt their campus was doing enough.

Clearly there is incentive in not being branded as a school with “a sexual assault problem.”  However, the problem of sexual assault is not unique to schools bearing the scarlet letter of a Title IX investigation. The public release of the list of 55 schools (now over 60) currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, while certainly elevating the dialogue around this issue, may also have the unintended consequence of marginalizing the problem and propagating the misperception that sexual assault is a case of a few bad apples.

Beyond the tragic personal narratives of victimization (and often revictimization upon reporting) prolific in local and national media, the high rates of sexual assault among college students have been demonstrated empirically since the 1980s. However, administrators and practitioners often do not have a solid handle on their campus-specific incidence of sexual assault, or trend data relating to this challenge. Relying on Clery report data is insufficient and misleading, as reports can fluctuate with the extent to which authorities abide by reporting guidelines, or the degree to which students feel comfortable coming forward to campus authorities about their assault in any given year. In the absence of campus data that come anywhere close to commonly cited statistics, the door is open for some campus leaders to keep their fingers pointing outward and their heads buried in the sand.

This brings us back to climate surveys. If mandated broadly, climate surveys can reduce barriers to transparency by leveling the playing field across institutions – it would likely be found that sexual assault is shockingly prevalent on most, if not all, campuses. This would allow campuses to distinguish themselves not just by avoiding “the list” but by the efforts they make to proactively take a stand against sexual assault.

white house task force

Insights gleaned by a deeper understanding of students’ and employees’ attitudes, behaviors, and experiences (both the good and the bad) could be leveraged to garner additional resources. Further, these campus-specific insights could inform a more accurately targeted—and thus more cost-effective—allocation of resources. At the end of the day, campuses would be delivering more appropriate and impactful programs and services to their students and employees. Not to mention the universal benefits that could be realized by a more data-driven community of practice.

If campus safety and student wellness are truly viewed as key priorities, the merits of climate surveys will likely far outweigh the costs. While there may be fiscal and logistical challenges, the conversation should remain focused on appropriations rather than appropriateness.

To learn more about EverFi’s new climate survey tool, please contact

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