10/13/2014 04:02 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Assessing the Pervasiveness of Sexual Assault on College Campuses: The Importance of Data

The past year has brought intense scrutiny of colleges and universities over the issue of sexual assault on campus, particularly since the White House issued a report last January that included an alarming statistic: 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. As of August, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating more than 75 colleges and universities for their handling of sexual assault allegations.

This attention has prompted draft legislation and newly enacted laws to combat the reported prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. On September 28, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring public colleges and universities in the state to revise their rape-prevention policies to include an "affirmative consent" standard, which requires both parties engaging in sexual activity to verbally consent -- passive (silent) assent is unacceptable under the new statute. In September, the Obama administration, supported by the NCAA and a number of media companies, unveiled the "It's On Us" campaign aimed at combating sexual violence on college campuses.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill continue to lead efforts on Capitol Hill to enact legislation designed to promote greater institutional accountability for handling of sexual assault allegations on campus. The draft bill would require annual anonymous surveys of all college students to provide a more complete picture of the prevalence of sexual violence on campus. The Campus SaVE (Sexual Violence Elimination) Act, passed in 2013, went into effect last week; one of the provisions of this new law requires campuses to maintain greater transparency and accountability about the reporting and handling of sexual assault allegations. Additionally, the new law includes language pertaining to same-sex sexual assault -- an important step forward from previous versions of this law.

The increased media attention and new regulations raining down on institutions from local, state and federal policymakers necessitate that colleges and universities better realize the prevalence of the issue on their campuses. Many instances of sexual assault go unreported, and it is imperative that institutional leaders improve their understanding of the broader climate on their campus.

Surveys are a key tool to explore a number of aspects of climate on college campuses. For the past five years, the Higher Education Research Institute has provided such a tool in the Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) survey. In response to the growing national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses, we have added a set of questions to the DLE that ask respondents about their experiences with unwanted sexual contact since entering their current institution. Students who report having had unwanted sexual contact see a short set of questions pertaining to the incident(s) -- whether perpetrator used physical force, whether the survivor was incapacitated when the incident happened and whether or to whom the survivor has reported the incident.

Our mission at the Higher Education Research Institute has always consisted of two parts: "to inform educational policy and promote institutional improvement through an increased understanding of higher education and its impact on college students." These important changes to the 2014-15 DLE survey accomplish both tenets of this mission. First, we aim to provide colleges and universities with actionable information about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Some institutions may not be quite ready to see this information, but they would be better served to squarely address this issue before additional regulations (or sanctions) are imposed on them by policymakers.

Second, we aim to contribute to the important conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. The widely cited statistic that 20 percent of women experience sexual assault while in college is based on a study of two public universities; thus, although the government and media have latched on to this figure, we really do not know how representative this statistic is across institutional types, geographic regions or student characteristics (indeed, some media have been skeptical of these numbers). The point of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a national longitudinal study of the American higher education system, is to aggregate data across institutions to provide, if not national, at least multi-institutional perspectives about the college experience. We hope this important addition to a survey that already focuses on other campus climate issues can further advance our objective.