Campus Climate Surveys Are Useful but Not Perfect, GAO Says

May 22, 2020

The United States Government Accountability Office, or GAO, published a new report that examines the values and limitations of surveys that measure the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, outlining several problems institutions face in conducting and analyzing the studies. The report, directed at lawmakers on congressional committees for education and oversight, identified problems with the variety of ways sexual assault and harassment are defined in campus climate surveys conducted by different colleges and universities and the difficulty of comparing results across multiple campuses. One of the main intended uses of the surveys is to help college students and their parents make comparisons and identify similarities or problematic trends, but the lack of uniformity in format, wording and questions in the surveys is their most criticized aspect.

The report reviewed surveys from the Association of American Universities; the Administrator Research Campus Climate Collaborative, a group of sexual assault researchers and student affairs officials that develops climate surveys; and the U.S. Department of Justice, which have been some of the most widely used since an Obama administration task force encouraged colleges in 2014 to begin voluntarily conducting the surveys. Some states require colleges within their jurisdiction to administer the surveys; New York requires it for all campuses, while Louisiana requires it only for all public colleges, for instance. Federal legislation that mandates all U.S. colleges conduct climate surveys has been proposed but not enacted, the report said.

The GAO interviewed 25 survey developers, campus sexual violence researchers and federal, state and college officials, who said the surveys are a “useful tool” for monitoring sexual violence on campuses due to the low reporting rates of such crimes to law enforcement and campus authorities. The surveys also provide higher ed officials with ways to improve sexual violence prevention and response measures, the stakeholders said. But interviewees also identified several barriers to administering the surveys, such as low student response rates, which can lead to faulty results, and a lack of resources among smaller colleges to hire third parties to construct questions and analyze data in the same way the AAU climate survey is structured.

“While all stakeholders noted the value of conducting campus climate surveys, about half of them generally cautioned against requiring colleges to administer them in light of the associated challenges,” the report said.

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