Imagine it is 1 a.m. on any college campus about six weeks into the fall semester. A first-year student believes they have been sexually assaulted. Just a few weeks in, they are still getting to know their roommate, the campus and the university bureaucracies. Alone, ashamed and hurting, they want to know what to do and how to get help. They turn to the campus website and search for “sexual assault on campus” or “rape resources.”
A number of things come up: campus police, local police, anonymous reporting options, LGBTQ+ resource centers, campus mental health services. And, of course, they find the Title IX policy itself.
But will this Title IX policy—the object of so much research and debate—help the student handle this traumatic event? Probably not, our research suggests.
To comply with Title IX, universities do what institutions so often do: hire consulting firms and legally trained professionals to interpret, frame and implement the law in the institution. But those firms and professionals are paid by and looking out for the university, plugging any holes that might lead to liability. The student audience is, at most, an afterthought. The student can’t make heads or tails of the technical, bureaucratic language.
When we ran a study, we found that even students who haven’t just been assaulted can neither find nor understand the information they most need.
Here’s how we did our research. We asked 200 current college undergraduates to analyze one of five typical Title IX policies to determine, first, if regular undergraduate students could even find specific information in the policy and, second, whether they could comprehend key aspects of the policy. Students were able, for the most part, to locate things they might need—for instance, the toll-free 24-hour crisis hotline. But they were largely unable to comprehend various critical terms and concepts in the policy—including the definition of sexual assault and the university’s standard of proof in disciplinary hearings about sexual assault.
We also computationally analyzed the actual text of 160 typical Title IX policies using a numerical score to calculate readability. Scores closer to zero are harder to read. We found that the average Title IX policy has a Flesch Reading-Ease score of 30.80. For comparison, Time magazine has an average of around 57, The New York Times an average of around 47 and the Harvard Law Review an average of around 34. In short, these Title IX policies are harder to read than all of those publications and can’t be comprehended by the undergraduates for whom they’re supposedly written.
That leaves a lot of students in the dark. Reliable ongoing research continues to find that one in four female undergraduates will be sexually assaulted during their college years, while one in 15 male students will be as well. LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming students are at an increased risk compared to their heterosexual, gender-conforming classmates.
And for the Class of 2026, these risks may only increase. As we know, the college years are a time when many young people explore alcohol, drugs and sexual intimacy. Because so many students were socially isolated during the pandemic, members of the Class of 2026 are at increased risk of mistakes and missteps. Many didn’t have the chance to experiment during high school, as did many previous generations of college kids. They have had less time than other cohorts to learn to practice navigating in-person social cues. What’s more, many college freshmen have come from states with abstinence-only sex education; others have endured family and social pressure to identify as straight and cisgender. While first exploring sexual and gender identity, college students are at particular risk of everything from forced sexual assault to serious misunderstandings and misreadings about sexual consent.
With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the stakes could not be higher. Colleges need to create student-focused policies and materials. Title IX officers and campus general counsels’ offices need to understand that the documents they produce to show compliance for federal audits or for a legal defense if the institution is sued are just the beginning. Our institutions need to go further and create a simple and clear, step-by-step, Lexile-tested, streamlined place for a traumatized student to land when they undertake this 1 a.m. search—with links for more information if needed. Assaulted students’ first point of contact should be with a confidential “concierge” of sorts who will help the student navigate the overwhelming sets of resources available.
College administrators, faculty and staff must be having conversations about how these policies function from the students’ points of view. As universities prepare to welcome the Class of 2026, we should think carefully about reducing sexual assault, training students in consent and better dealing with the repeated victimization on college campuses.