The shootings at Virginia Tech, understandably, have generated questions about the safety of college campuses. A brief overview of what we know about violent crime on college campuses can give some perspective on this tragic event. On May 15, 2007 the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing entitled "Best Practices for Making College Campuses Safe." Click here for information on this hearing and Dr. Cornell's testimony.
There are approximately 16 million students attending 4,200 colleges and universities in the United States (Carr, 2005).
There was relatively little information on college crime until passage of the Clery Act of 1998, which required colleges to publish annual crime statistics for their campuses. All college students should be able to obtain annual reports on crime rates for their campus, although the Clery Act excludes larceny, theft, vandalism, threats, and harassment.
In 2005 the American College Health Association (ACHA) released its Campus Violence White Paper (Carr, 2005) to address violence patterns on college campuses and identify promising prevention and response practices. This report noted that there are often questions about the accuracy and completeness of college crime data, because colleges are motivated to present a favorable image in order to recruit students and attract donors. Nevertheless, college crime reports generally indicate a lower rate of violent crime than is found in the general community.
A further problem with college crime reports is that many crimes go unreported to college authorities. A study by Sloan, Fisher, and Cullen (1997) found that only 35% of violent crimes on college campuses were reported to authorities. Students interviewed for this study gave various reasons for not reporting crimes; for example, many regarded the crime as too minor or considered it a private matter. Victims also might be too ashamed or embarrassed to report a crime. However, crime under-reporting is a common problem and can be found outside of college campuses as well. It is not clear whether under-reporting is greater on college campuses than in the community at large.
College Student Interviews
One alternative to college crime reports is to interview students and determine whether or not they have been victims of a recent crime. Baum and Klaus (2005) interviewed college students and non-students in the 18-24 years age group. As shown in the chart, they found a declining crime rate over the course of the study period 1995 to 2002. They also determined that college students experienced a lower victimization rate than non-students for every crime except rape/sexual assault. Moreover, approximately 93% of the crimes against students occurred off-campus. These results strongly indicate that college campuses are safe in comparison to the community as a whole.
Nevertheless, sexual assaults are a serious college concern. According to studies reviewed in the ACHA Campus Violence White Paper, approximately 15-20% of female college students report being the victim of forced intercourse (rape) and approximately 5-15% of college men admit forcing intercourse on a partner (Carr, 2005). Most sexual assaults involved persons who knew each other. Less than one-quarter of rape/sexual assaults were committed by strangers. Furthermore, most of the sexual assaults involved use of alcohol or other drugs.
Sources: (1) U.S. Dept of Education (2010). Summary of Campus Crime and Security Statistics 2002-2004, (2) Summary Crime Statistics for 2004-2006, and (3) Summary Crime Statistics for 2007-2009. http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/campus.html
The Virginia Tech shootings raised particular concern about the homicide rate on college campuses. Fortunately, data on homicides are considered more reliable than most crimes because they are intensively investigated and publicly reported events. According to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Education (2010), there were 335 murders on college campuses in the thirteen years from 1997-2009, an average of 26 per year. Since there are approximately 4,200 colleges in the United States, this means the average college can expect to experience a murder on campus about once every 166 years.
Also, it may be useful to note that there have been more than 16,000 homicides per year in the United States since 2001. Murders on college campuses represent far less than one percent of the total homicides in the United States. These statistics can help place the problem of college homicides in perspective; nevertheless, campus safety is an important concern and we want to prevent all college homicides.
Baum, K., & Klaus, P. (2005). Violent victimization of college students, 1995-2002. (NCJ Publication No. 206836). Washington , DC : U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
U.S. Department of Education (2001). The Incidence of Crime on the Campuses of U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Education (2001-2004). Summary of Campus Crime and Security Statistics. Washington, D.C.