College Campuses & Safety: How to Read Media and How to Evaluate Campuses for Yourself

   photo from flickr user Michael Theis  

Safety on and near college campuses is and should be a major concern for parents. When sending a child away from home, the want to ensure a safe environment is a logical emotion for a parent to have.

There are certainly statistical reasons to be concerned. These US Department of Education statistics reveal the frequency of thefts and robberies on college campuses:

But the statistics alone aren’t driving parent worry about campus safety. Every few months, it seems, media outlets release new compilations of college safety rankings. Here are a few of the more prevalent ones:

Understanding these Articles and their Flaws

These attention-grabbing articles often get significant media exposure. But how should we, as college parents, understand them?

First, in reading these articles, one should notice that ‘most dangerous’ is a misleading term. What these rankings usually show is the highest rate of a certain subset of crimes on or near campus when evaluated per capita for a student population. Most dangerous is a vague term, while the latter is a much more specific term describing the quantitative analysis. (However, it should be noted the latter probably makes for a poor headline.)

Understanding that these are usually per capita rankings of the number of crimes, you may then wonder where the crime data comes from and whether or not it is reliable data. The articles are based off of one of two crime data sources, both which are only current through 2011. Sometimes, this type of article may use both sources for a side-by-side rankings comparison.

However, like many data sets, each commonly used set of campus crime data has its particular shortcomings in providing a comprehensive overview of its domain.

The FBI Uniform Crime Report Data & its Flaws for Campus Safety Rankings

Some web articles ranking college safety employ the FBI Uniform Crime Report for college campus data [View it here]. This data is a good source for violent crime on campus. Its data is compiled exclusively from reporting police authorities around the country.

One flaw of the FBI Uniform Crime Report is that it is not particularly current. As of the writing of this post in April 2013, the most recent usable data is from 2011.

However, its major flaw is that, either because they lack a police force or due to other factors, so few schools participate in such reporting. Indeed, there are over 7,000 US postsecondary education branches, schools and campuses, but only 638 campuses ranked.

Moreover, the FBI specifically states that, due to surrounding factors, per capita comparisons are far, far more complicated than just comparing crime per student enrolled. As it says in its data declaration,

The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from…colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population coverage or student enrollment.”

Furthermore, in its downloadable data file, the FBI states,

“NOTE: Caution should be exercised in making any intercampus comparisons or ranking schools because university/college crime statistics are affected by a variety of factors. These include demographic characteristics of the surrounding community, ratio of male to female students, number of on-campus residents, accessibility of the campus to outside visitors, size of enrollment, etc.”

It is also believed that some schools are more vigilant in their crime reporting than others. This assertion was noted in Business Insider’s comment on their campus safety ranking methodology.

So, while the FBI is a good data source for evaluating known crimes on campus, it should not be considered an appropriate source for ranking school safety, as it ignores too many external factors.

Clery Disclosure and Campus Crime Statistics Act Data & its Flaws for Campus Safety Rankings

The other common data set us the Clery Act data. This is data which every campus & institute of postsecondary education, by federal law, must report to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education.

Unlike the FBI UCR data, the Clery Act data reaches more schools and includes more information. Clery Act reporting includes information for most schools about various crime types and about campus fires. The Clery Act also has information about liquor, drugs and gun violations that resulted in arrest or disciplinary action. Where possible, the data is divided into on-campus, on-campus student housing, on-campus public property, and noncampus crimes reported. This can be extremely useful for understanding where a campus is safe and where it may be unsafe.

Want to see for yourself? The easiest way to search through this data is by using the Department of Education’s “Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool.”


This Clery Act data set has a few flaws: like the FBI Uniform Crime report, it also cannot account for many external factors affecting a campus’s safety data. And, like the FBI Uniform Crime Report, the Clery Act Data is not particularly current—due to the way in which statistical information is reported to the U.S. Department of Education and then revised, as of April 1, 2013, the most recent Clery Act data is from 2011.

However, the especially concerning drawback in using the Clery Act data is that some schools are not fully compliant with their data reporting. A few instances of this were documented in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011. While such schools face potential sanctioning and fines, this can still affect the validity of the data for comparison purposes.

Comparing lots of school data? Want to see Clery Act data as well as information about school, cost, enrollment, financial aid awards, and many other statistics categories? Our own research team suggests the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator. It’s free and full of useful and reliable information about colleges.

Alternative Methods to Evaluating School Safety

So, what should you do to evaluate a school?

While College Parents of America certainly suggests looking into the FBI UCR data & a school’s Clery data when comparing possible schools, there are other things one can do to get a comprehensive sense about whether a campus is safe enough for you and your student:

A campus visit.

Whether you and your child feel safe about a campus and its surrounding area are arguably just as important as any numerical ranking. A campus visit may be the most comprehensive way to gain this knowledge.

Talk to students who attend the school.

Students should have particularly good insight, especially into what they and their friends have experienced in their time on campus

  • Do they feel safe?
  • What steps do they take on campus to maintain their safety?

Talk to the school’s parents association (or, if your college doesn’t have such an association, ask on online forums).

Connecting to parents with experience of what its like to have a child on that campus can be valuable in validating or minimizing a parent’s level of concern.

  • What are parents’ safety concerns?
  • How safe do they feel with their student(s) there?


Search through a local police crime map or crime report.

Local police at or near your school usually have crime reports by district or area. Some may even have interactive maps. Some parents may find such a crime report particularly useful for evaluating where a student should live if their student will live off-campus.

Discuss safety concerns with campus representatives.

Talking to admissions reps, college safety staff and student groups is a great way to learn safety features of a school.

  • Are there safety callboxes on campus?
  • Is there a service like SafeRide on the University of Arizona’s campus that will provide a safe ride home for students who don’t want to walk alone at night?
  • Is there a safety patrol on campus and/or near campus?
  • What sort of safety training, if any, do students receive during their first college year?


Have other ideas? Chime in in the comment section below. And stay safe out there.