Some say the results of the poll conducted by Rutgers University are unreliable because only 30 percent of students filled out the survey, and questions were broadly framed.
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A survey of one campus reinforces and also adds context to a common statistic. It's often said that, in college, 1 in 5 women - 20 percent - are sexually assaulted.
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The survey put questions to women at Rutgers where President Obama's administration began a fight against campus sexual assault.
MONTAGNE: The survey offered insight on how many women say they've been attacked and also what they actually mean when they say that. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Twenty percent of female students who took the survey said they were victims of unwanted sexual contact or attempted contact. It's not such a surprise, says Richard Edwards, chancellor of Rutgers New Brunswick, but something of a wake-up call.
RICHARD EDWARDS: The fact that it is 1 in 5 gave us a sense that we really had to be proactive. We had to really get moving to reach our students.
SMITH: Edwards says that goes for high schools as well as colleges. One of the most startling findings, he says, is that even more students - 1 in 4 - said they experienced sexual violence before they ever got to college. That number may be high in part because that question defined sexual violence so broadly it would include even, for example, an unwelcome comment. The Rutgers survey comes as dozens of other schools are preparing to release their own survey results, but administrators caution students should not be looking at climate surveys as a way to comparison-shop different colleges.
FELICIA MCGINTY: I think that we're really talking about apples and oranges, and I would not recommend that this be used as something that students use to choose an institution.
SMITH: Instead, says Rutgers' Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Felicia McGinty, climate surveys should be used by schools to gauge where they can improve. For example, the Rutgers questionnaire showed that very few survivors make use of campus support services or tell staff what happened. In response, McGinty says, Rutgers is launching a slew of new initiatives to raise awareness about resources.
MCGINTY: Our students spoke, and we listened.
SMITH: It's worth noting, however, that it was a relatively small number of students who spoke. Even after an aggressive PR campaign and cash incentives, only about 30 percent took part in this survey, leading some to question its reliability.
DIANE FOLLINGSTAD: You do worry about whether or not it is a representative group.
SMITH: Diane Follingstad studies violence against women at the University of Kentucky that has just made its climate survey mandatory, forcing the participation of students who, otherwise, would never have bothered.
TIMOTHY MASON: No, I got other things to do.
KAITLIN KILCOURSE: Yeah, probably not.
ALEC HALFHILL: Like, I'd rather go hang out with friends, do other things.
SMITH: Walking through campus yesterday, University of Kentucky students Timothy Mason, Kaitlin Kilcourse and Alec Halfhill all said they did what they had to do even though, as Kindra Evans put it, she has little interest in a survey on sexual assault.
KINDRA EVANS: I don't know. It just feels like, personally, that's not something that's affected me at this point in my life, so I really wouldn't feel the need to take it.
SMITH: Follingstad says that's exactly the problem. Voluntary surveys, she says, tend to get a self-selected group of students motivated by personal experience, and that can really skew results. In Kentucky's mandatory survey, just 5 percent of students said they were victims - far less than Rutgers' 20 percent. Follingstad says Rutgers may also have used too broad a definition of sexual violence that could count, for example, when a student threatens to break up with a girlfriend if she doesn't agree to have sex.
FOLLINGSTAD: That's boorish, rotten behavior, but it is not sexual assault. And so we're trying to highlight, you know, that there are serious problems out here without putting everything into the pot.
SMITH: Some lawmakers have been pushing to standardize climate surveys and require schools to all use the same one. But Rutgers researchers say another lesson they learned is that one size does not fit all. They say surveys should be tailored to reflect schools' individual campus culture. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.