RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC – Small, private colleges with fewer female students are less likely than larger public colleges to have sexual assault policies and a definition of sexual consent on their websites, according to a new study from researchers at RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a paper published in the Journal of School Violence, researchers found colleges with more than 5,000 students, public colleges, and those where more than 33 percent of students are female were more likely to have sexual assault policies and consent definitions than those with fewer students overall, private colleges, and those with fewer female students. Among U.S. four-year colleges, 93 percent published a sexual assault policy online and nearly 88 percent of schools published a definition of consent, a first step toward making students aware of their schools’ official standpoint on sexual assault.
“Small, private institutions, and those with mostly male students, have an opportunity to make their policies on sexual assault more prominently accessible to students,” said Olivia Ashley, Dr. P.H., a senior public health scientist and director of the Military and Family Risk Behavior Research Program at RTI and one of the authors of the study.
The research team cited a previous RTI study that found many sexual assault cases on college campuses go unreported. A comprehensive definition of consent, they noted, helps students identify and understand sexual assault, which might lead to more investigations of cases that otherwise would have slipped through the cracks.
“Although we found that the vast majority of schools now publish sexual assault policies and consent definitions, those policies and definitions vary widely,” Ashley said. “At different schools, the same physical act can be—and often is—defined differently. All of this variability further complicates an already complex issue.”
The study is among the first to examine college websites as a source of information on sexual assault and consent. The researchers did note, though, that colleges have other ways of communicating their policies to students.
The 995 schools in the study were drawn from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, a database of schools on which RTI collects data annually for the U.S. Department of Education.