Is there a Sexual Assault Crisis on College Campuses? Yes and No.
No matter what position you take in discussing rape and sexual assault policy, you can point to some statistic(s) to support your argument. That is largely due to the low quality and/or limited utility of a lot of data about sexual violence. If you do not have any interest in the truth, you can simply pick the statistic you prefer over the ones contrary to your narrative. If, on the other hand, you want a better sense of what is actually happening, you have to put the pieces of data in their proper context. Take, for example, the rate of sexual assault at large universities in the Figure below (based upon Clery Act reports) compared with the rate of forcible rape anywhere in the United States (based upon Uniform Crime Reports).
Taken at face value, you might conclude that sexual assault at large universities has rapidly increased since 2009 and forcible rape has been on a steady decline since 2001. Yet, I think the stronger evidence is that both of those claims are false. The reason that the data is likely misleading is that it relies on reports from institutions under different sets of incentives. As I wrote in my study about the UCR data, police have, based upon my analysis, increasingly been undercounting rape, in part, to meet unrealistic public pressure to continually, repeatedly decrease crime rates. As a result, there has likely been little to no decline (and a possible increase) in the rate of rape since rape rates began falling in the early 90’s.
Why wouldn’t universities have the same incentives to limit reporting of sexual assault incidents to assuage fears of potential applicants, avoid Title IX suits, and maintain a positive public image? I think the best answer is that they still have all of those reasons to undercount, but during the last couple of years another concern has trumped those incentives for a certain segment of large universities. The year 2011 is particularly important because that is when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. The figure below shows what happened to sexual assault reports at Penn State.
Since 2010, according to Penn State’s Clery Act submissions, sexual assault has increased by an unbelievable 1389%. Is that because sexual assault has been increasing on campus? Almost certainly not. As part of the fallout from the Sandusky scandal and the issuance of the Freeh report, Penn State had its lax Clery Act compliance exposed. Similar spikes have happened at other large universities which account for entire increase during the last two reporting cycles. Big 10 schools, of which Penn State is one, have had the change in their collective rates of rape outpace the national average increase by nearly three times. What seems to be happening since 2011 (when the largest increase in sexual assault occurred) is that increased reporting at some schools has led to a significant spike in reported crimes. Other factors during that time frame such as increased Clery Act audits and Title IX lawsuits might have played a role as well.
So, based upon that assessment, is there a sexual assault crisis on campuses? It depends. If by “crisis” you mean an escalating problem based upon increasing rates of sexual assault, then I don’t think so. However, if by “crisis” you mean a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications, then the best evidence supports that conclusion.