Why you should care
University standings based on job prospects or faculty tell us nothing about the climate they create for women.
Best college town? Best dining hall? Best job prospects? Check, check and check. These are the types of rankings that Dana Bolger, and most prospective female college students, pore over when deciding where to apply to school. But there’s one question they probably didn’t consider: How the institution would treat them if they experienced sexual assault.
If Bolger had wanted a resource that consolidated data like this, she would’ve been out of luck. Today, the graduate of Amherst College advises students and parents to ask questions about a university’s sexual assault trainings, rates of sexual violence and the percentage of students who are suspended for misconduct. As a co-founder of Know Your IX, a political advocacy group that educates students about their federal Title IX rights, Bolger understands which questions reveal the nuances of a climate.
Equitable treatment must be treated as a civil right, not a public relations problem.
All parents are concerned about equity and safety when it comes to their children’s college selections, but today’s mainstream college rankings are full of indicators such as student retention rates, admissions selectivity and alumni giving — not safety or justice. It’s high time to start aggregating comprehensive gender equity metrics and rank schools based on how they are for women.
Higher education already fails to equally support female students. The average male graduating from a top university earns $59,000; the average female earns 19 percent less, at $48,000, according to a recent Forbes study. Even more shocking is the fact that nearly a quarter of undergraduate women are raped or sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. And while women hold 49 percent of U.S. faculty positions, they have just 38 percent of tenured jobs, according to a 2016 TIAA Institute study.
What should be considered? Incidence rates of sexual assault reported in surveys, the strength of mental health resources, the gender wage gap for faculty and the prevalence of body image disorders are good indicators to gauge the overall health of an institution, says Bolger. She points to the strength of a university’s trainings about violence, Title IX and consent, in addition to examining faculty ratios by gender and race. The presence of campus nurses trained to administer rape kits (and in their absence, the distance students must travel to access one) should also be considered, says Jackie Speier, U.S. representative for California’s 14th Congressional District.
Whether schools are reporting and publicizing their Clery Act statistics (a law requiring all colleges receiving federal financial aid to disclose campus crime statistics and policy to students, employees and the Department of Education) should also be considered. Proper training for a university’s Title IX coordinator should also be taken into account. These factors, among others, can help shed light on how universities are supporting their female students, says Deborah J. Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research at the American Association of University Women.
Bolger and Speier also want schools to be required to conduct anonymous and self-reported climate surveys. Surveys have become an important tool in the military, for example, to evaluate and fine-tune existing programs, says Speier. The Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Violence Act, which she introduced, would institute biennial climate surveys.
Equitable treatment must be treated as a civil right, not a public relations problem, says Vagins. It’s clear the No. 1 motivator for colleges is reputation, according to Bolger. “To the extent that we can make their treatment of female students and students of color known in the press, I think we’re a lot closer to solving the problem,” she says. In a moment when the federal government has largely abdicated its role in enforcing students’ civil rights, Bolger believes nongovernmental organizations must undertake an active role.
These universities are making noteworthy strides in the name of gender equality:
- The University of California, Davis, was commended by Forbes in 2016 as the top college of value for women in STEM, with 56 percent female enrollment and 29 percent of the student body specializing in STEM, perhaps due, in part, to the school’s robust on-campus support systems.
- Rutgers University’s School of Social Work was chosen by the Obama administration in 2014 to pilot and evaluate an exhaustive “campus climate assessment model,” or survey, due to its status as a leading research institute focusing on violence against women.
- Harvard was the only university that made Forbes’ top 10 list of best employers for women, ranking ninth overall in 2018. Forbes and Statista anonymously surveyed 40,000 Americans about working conditions, diversity and likelihood to recommend, with female respondents also rating parental leave, discrimination and pay equity.
Women’s advocates support the idea of adjusting the university ranking system. In fact, Speier discussed a narrower version of this proposal with U.S. News & World Report, the media company responsible for the annual rankings, four years ago. The trouble with this approach, according to the outlet, is unreliable information. “The larger problem — and more important issue — is that crime and campus safety data is unreliable and unusable to make sound comparisons about how colleges are handling campus safety and health issues, including around sexual assault,” warns Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News. Using today’s sources of data, he says, wouldn’t allow an accurate ranking of colleges by campus safety and health, and could create negative, unintended consequences.
One example: Higher Clery numbers can indicate that a school encourages survivors to make reports — not necessarily that violence rates are higher — so solely relying on them could discourage schools to report.
But surely something is better than nothing. We don’t need to wait for the traditional rankings source to drive change. In fact, Speier thinks it might be easier to simply create a new system than to revise the existing one.
Transparency might unearth ugly truths, but those truths generate informed solutions. And, according to Vagins, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
* Correction: The original version of this article referred to U.S. News & World Report as a magazine. It is no longer a print publication.