Today’s Columbus Dispatch reveals deeply problematic issues in the substance of crime reports. When even the national director of campus safety reports reveals that college self-reporting is inaccurate, parents are left wondering what data they can rely on.

The Dispatch’s wonderful investigative work reveals some impossible to believe statistics. By looking at 12 years of Clery Act disclosures for 1,800 colleges, they found:

  • “Nearly 3 percent have reported that there never has been a crime of violence on their campuses. Not a single homicide, robbery, serious physical assault or sexual assault.”
  • “Nearly 16 percent reported that there has never been a physical altercation that could have resulted in serious harm.”
  • “Nearly a fifth reported that there has never been a sexual assault, including Urbana University, northwest of Columbus, where a student told police in 2012 that she was gang-raped in a dorm room.”
  • “Bowling Green State University, for example, said that it had no serious physical assaults on campus in 2011 and 2012, even though its student-disciplinary board punished about 60 students for physical assault.”

Colleges, of course, are concerned both with safety and the appearance of safety. The latter can impact student enrollment decisions and rankings. While much of the underreporting may be due to technical definitions of actions or clerical error, schools nevertheless are problematically incentivized to underreport their crime disclosures.

College Parents of America put together a primer on how to investigate college safety for yourself, but deception in self-reporting will hamstring college parents’ ability to find out accurate information. In addition to visiting campuses and doing this research, talking with local police and the parents’ association of a college are simple steps that may provide a valuable second-check on college safety data.