Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Are Climate Surveys Still Relevant?

The years 2014–2015 saw a dramatic increase in media attention and national awareness on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, due in part to the creation of the Obama administration’s White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. Student “climate surveys” on the topic proliferated, as such surveys were deemed a critical part of university efforts to understand and address sexual assault.

Among the largest and most methodologically rigorous climate surveys, the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS; conducted by RTI in 2015–2016 with funding from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office on Violence Against Women) advanced the field’s knowledge about the importance of climate surveys in several ways.

First, despite the prevailing focus on national statistics (e.g., “1-in-5” undergraduate women will be sexually assaulted while in college), the CCSVS showed that rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment actually varied widely across schools, with some schools having a much bigger problem than others, and some students, particularly LGBTQ students, being at much greater risk than others.

Second, the CCSVS confirmed that the vast majority of sexual assault incidents were never reported to anyone working at the university or in law enforcement, which greatly limits the utility of official statistics such as a university’s Clery Act data. These findings demonstrate that school-specific, self-reported surveys are not merely useful but are actually the only way for a given school to understand the true magnitude and nature of the problem among its students.

A third lesson the CCSVS taught us was that for a climate survey to be successful, research methods matter. By using rigorous methods to develop and validate the survey questions, successfully recruit students (achieving response rates that remain among the highest ever published among climate surveys), and ensure sample representativeness, the CCSVS was able to generate high-quality, statistically precise estimates for each participating university. The findings were then used by the schools to improve policies, prevention efforts, and responses to survivors.

Now the Task Force no longer exists and the Department of Education is rolling back many Title IX guidelines developed as protections under the previous administration. Yet climate surveys are as important as ever, as the only source of school-specific data on the extent and nature of sexual misconduct. Further, when re-administered periodically, climate surveys enable schools to examine trends over time and assess whether newly implemented policy changes or prevention programming have improved the campus climate and/or reduced sexual misconduct.

The Office on Violence Against Women continues to recommend climate surveys as a best practice for the prevention of sexual assault, and the 2018 Omnibus appropriations bill instructs the Department of Justice to expand its campus climate survey work and develop “a cost-effective, standardized, and methodologically rigorous nationwide research program on campus sexual assault.” We remain optimistic (and hopeful) that climate surveys will continue to be seen as an important tool for understanding and preventing campus sexual assault.

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