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Study: Colleges Should Be Evaluated on Campus Climate

A campus’ social climate for tolerance and its treatment of women and minorities aren’t criteria that factor in traditional college rankings, but they probably should be.


Overall campus safety, tolerance and treatment of women and minorities should be factored into the equation of choosing a college, according to the results of a pilot study released today by the Campus Tolerance Foundation.


Over the course of three months, 1,039 undergraduate students from three colleges — Columbia College, Michigan State University and the University of California, Berkeley — responded to an online survey about topics relating to campus diversity, security and mutual respect. Among the findings, 40 percent of students say that female students are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to be sexually harassed.


The findings released today are the first component of a three-part series of the pilot study called, “If I’d Only Known: University Students Talk About Tolerance and Safety on Campus.” Officials say that the overall objective of this research study is to eventually craft a “national survey mechanism” that uses concepts such as campus tolerance and social climate to rate colleges and universities across the country.


“The mission of the Campus Tolerance Foundation is to advance the conversation and have a better understanding of what the actual situation of tolerance and safety is on college campuses,” says Michael Remaley, the director of communications for Public Agenda: a nonprofit public policy research organization that assisted with the study. “However, a national survey would allow students and families to figure out where to send their kids to college and have this as a factor to consider.”


Although female students are beginning to outnumber their male counterparts on college campuses across the nation, an online report detailing the study’s findings states that the “persistence of wide-ranging sexual harassment is unnerving.” However, about 90 percent of the study’s female participants say their college is open and accepting of women.


“This research uncovered many reports of bias toward members of minority groups. I believe these are dimensions many universities would rather not be judged on,” says Marcella Rosen, the founder of the Campus Tolerance Foundation, in a recent statement. “We didn’t set out to examine safety for women on campus, but many individuals in early focus group research for the initiative identified this as an important area of tolerance and safety that wasn’t being addressed adequately by college leaders, and then the survey results produced other revelations about women’s safety that really surprised us.”


Remaley adds that students who participated in the study used the online database, Facebook, to respond to researchers’ questions from April to July 2007. According to the online report, the questionnaires were also pretested on the phone prior to being fielded online. The majority of the study’s data is extracted from online student responses. Remaley also notes that before fielding the survey, focus groups were organized at all three campuses to gauge various points of interest among each respective school’s student body.


The pilot study also notes the prevalence of self-segregation on the three selected college campuses. According to the study, students from various racial and ethnic groups “often end up having limited and segregated social relations — mixed crowds are not necessarily the norm.” And while many students say there is true respect and tolerance on campus, they note that “prejudice comes out when they’re behind closed doors.”


Additionally, the analysis examines students’ perceptions concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. According to the study, 77 percent of participating students say their campus is extremely open and accepting of these students.


However, since the pilot investigation uses responses from a small group of random students, officials say that the study should not be considered scientifically based.


“It is a pilot study that we should pay attention to, but we can’t be positively sure that this is a clear example of what is happening on these campuses or all campuses because it’s a random non-scientific study. In that sense it’s not a representative sample,” says Remaley, who notes that the foundation is expected to release findings related to tolerance toward racial and ethnic minorities and intellectual intimidation in upcoming weeks.


“This is a beginning test to see if there is a survey that could be developed that taps the knowledge of what’s out there using students’ perceptions,” he says. “We feel that this pilot is a good probing ground for showing that this survey, methodologically, can be put into practice successfully. It’s just a matter of getting good access to students.”


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