Survey finds the percentage of undergraduate women at 9 colleges who were sexually assaulted during 2014-2015 academic year varied considerably

Sexual assault rates varied among the 9 schools, ranging from 4 percent to 20 percent during the 2014-2015 academic year

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – In a survey of students at nine U.S. colleges and universities, the percentage of undergraduate women who experienced a sexual assault, defined as sexual battery or rape, during 2014-2015 academic year varied considerably—rates varied among the 9 schools, ranging from 4 percent to 20 percent. The Campus Climate Survey Validation Study, which was conducted by RTI International and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), stemmed from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.

The Task Force (formed in 2014) encourages colleges and universities to conduct a climate survey to collect school-level data on the prevalence of sexual victimization and measures of campus climate, including students' knowledge of reporting policies and resources, attitudes about prevention, and perceptions of the community's response to the problem. In August 2014, the Office on Violence Against Women funded BJS, within the U.S. Department of Justice, who partnered with RTI, to develop and test a pilot campus climate survey that could be used by schools or researchers.

The confidential, web-based survey was conducted in March 2015.  Surveys were completed by 23,000 undergraduates (15,000 women and 8,000 men) at nine colleges and universities in the United States. The participating schools, which are not identified in the report, varied in size, public vs. private status, 2- vs. 4-year status, and geography.

The average response rate across all nine schools was 54 percent for undergraduate females, with female response rates ranging from 43 percent at one school to a high of 71 percent at another. There was minimal, if any, evidence of nonresponse bias.

A number of methodological assessments were conducted to assess the quality and validity of the data collected and to provide guidance on how best to conduct future climate surveys. Detailed results of these assessments are included in the report.

"Importantly, because the study achieved relatively high response rates, the sexual victimization estimates for each school are rather precise," said Christopher Krebs, Ph.D., senior research social scientist at RTI, and the report's lead author. "The level of statistical precision we achieved and the completeness and quality of the data enable us to compare estimates from one school to another, and gives the participating schools confidence in the validity and reliability of their results."

The study defines rape as unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact that involved a penetrative sexual act, including oral sex, anal sex, sexual intercourse, or sexual penetration with a finger or object; sexual battery as unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact that involved forced touching of a sexual nature, not involving penetration; and sexual assault as unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact that involved either rape or sexual battery.


Some report highlights include:                                                      

  • The prevalence of rape ranged across schools from 2 percent to 8 percent of undergraduate females during the 2014-2015 academic year. The prevalence of sexual battery ranged across schools from 1.7 percent to 13 percent of undergraduate females during the 2014-2015 academic year.
  • Although the survey focused on victimization during the 2014-2015 academic year, other estimates are included in the report. The prevalence rate for completed sexual assault since entering college among undergraduate females ranged from 12 percent at one school to 38 percent at another, with a cross-school average rate of 21 percent. When considering only senior females, the prevalence of sexual assault victimization since entering college was about 25 percent or 1 in 4.  This rate ranged across schools from 1 in 2 at one school to 1 in 8 at another.

"These survey data show that the overall prevalence of sexual assault victimization across schools for a 7-8 month reference period was 10 percent, but that the rates varied considerably from one school to another.  This drives home the importance of generating school-level estimates of sexual victimization," Krebs said. "The data represent undergraduate students at the nine schools, but not a national average. Each school is different, and each school needs to understand the magnitude and nature of the problem at their college or university if they are going to effectively address it."

  • The survey also measured victimization of males and the prevalence of sexual harassment, coerced sexual contact, intimate partner violence, perpetration of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and students' perceptions of the school climate related to sexual misconduct. These estimates are presented in the report for both males and females.
  • Across all schools, female sexual assault victims told a roommate, friend, or family member about the victimization for the majority of rape incidents (64 percent) and sexual battery incidents (68 percent).  But, only 12.5 percent of rape incidents and 4.3 percent of sexual battery incidents were reported by the victim to any official, including school administrators, crisis centers/helplines or health care center on or off campus, campus police, or local police. 

"These findings related to reporting support previous research that the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported to authorities, do not come to the attention of the school, and are therefore not represented in a school's official statistics," according to report co-author Christine Lindquist, Ph.D., senior research sociologist at RTI. "Self-report surveys are critical for providing a more accurate picture of the extent of sexual victimization experienced by students."