Should College Rankings Reflect How Schools Are Handling Sexual Assault?

CREDIT: Richard Potts/Flickr

A group of lawmakers is pressuring U.S. News & World Report to update its influential college ranking system to indicate which universities have come under fire for failing to adequately handle sexual assault cases on campus. The rankings are currently based on a range of academic indicators, like SAT scores and graduation rates.

“We are writing to urge you to expand the methodology of your annual assessment of colleges and universities to include campus safety,” a dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), wrote in a letter to U.S. News & World Report. “Institutions that fail to adequately respond to sexual violence should not receive accolades from your publication.”

Under federal law, higher education institutions are required to maintain a safe learning environment that’s free of gender-based violence. They’re also obligated to accurately report the number of sexual assaults that occur on campus. But increasingly, colleges and universities have come under fire for failing to hold up their end of the bargain.

Over the past several years, a growing number of college students have banded together to file dozens of federal complaints against their universities, demanding better sexual assault policies on campus. Elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth have been accused of attempting to sweep rape under the rug in order to keep up appearances. The ongoing sexual assault crisis on college campuses recently spurred President Obama to create a new federal task force to investigate the issue.

“When parents and students compare colleges and universities they deserve to know which campuses are safe and which have demonstrated a pattern of failing to protect and respond to sexual assault,” Speier, who has spearheaded other recent initiatives to crack down on campus rape, explained in a statement regarding her new initiative. “U.S. News and World Report should not be giving top marks to institutions that don’t follow the law.”

U.S. News has indicated it’s open to the idea. Last week, the outlet published the lawmakers’ letter on its site. And a U.S. News spokesperson has confirmed that the magazine would be willing to meet with Speier to discuss the proposal.

One feminist advocacy group isn’t waiting for the magazine to update its policy.

UltraViolet, which has been running a campaign targeting Dartmouth College for its sexual assault policies, recently developed a set of online advertisements specifically intended to inform prospective students about the ongoing controversy at that institution. “Accepted to Dartmouth? You should know more about its rape problem,” one of the ads reads. There’s also a version for alumni that urges them to “click more” for information about why they may be “ashamed to be a Dartmouth alum.”

The ads are timed to reach high school seniors right as they’re deciding where they want to go in the fall. They’ve been seen about 60,000 times since they began running about a week ago, according to UltraViolet. “Ultimately Dartmouth is responsible for stopping rape on their campus — and if they won’t do that, prospective students have a right to know,” Nita Chaudhary, the co-founder of UltraViolet, explained.

Dartmouth is responding with an ad campaign of its own, encouraging prospective students to learn more about the efforts to improve this area that are already underway at the school. Proposed rule changes would strengthen the penalty for sexual assault on campus and appoint an outside investigator to handle rape allegations. The college also recently announced the creation of a sexual assault prevention center.