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09.24.09

The Top 25 Safest Colleges

Following the Yale murder and The Daily Beast’s ranking of the most crime-ridden campuses, we crunch the numbers again—this time to determine America’s safest schools.

In the aftermath of the murder of Yale doctoral student Annie Le, The Daily Beast conducted the exercise of attempting to discern how colleges stack up against each other safety-wise, and then highlighted the 25 schools—out of 4,000 measured—that performed the worst, based on statistics they provided the federal government plus our own methodology. Our rankings last week attracted a lot of attention, and in doing so led us to this natural follow-up: Rather than just focus on campuses where crime is an issue, why not also try to determine which schools are the safest?

Click Image Below for the School-by-School Rankings

Hence, the list we have assembled here, the 25 safest colleges in America. Unlike the Top 25 in football or basketball, this contest was open to any and all schools with a few caveats. First, we increased our minimum enrollment threshold for consideration to 6,000 students, because there are thousands of very small colleges that don’t have the same set of issues as larger schools (that a 275-student bible college has less crime per capita than a major state university yields no discernable lessons). Second, we knocked out graduate-only and two-year schools, again searching for more apples-to-apples comparisons. And finally, we excluded commuter colleges. It turns out that many of the safest schools in America are urban universities, but our methodology holds that it’s hard to compare schools that host students a few hours a day, versus those responsible around-the-clock. So our rule was firm: If you have dorms for at least some of your students, you’re in; if not, you’re out.

Plus: The 25 Colleges with the Worst Crime Rankings We then looked at the numbers. Specifically, for the past two decades, most colleges and universities nationwide have been required under the federal Clery Act—named for a Lehigh University freshman raped and murder in her dorm before her parents discovered there’d been a slew of violent incidents at the university—to report annually to the U.S. Department of Education about crimes on and near campus, including murder, assault, sexual offenses and robberies.

The Daily Beast took the two most recent years of raw data from almost 9,000 schools and then further analyzed more than 4,000 (excluding two-year colleges, standalone graduate schools, etc.) over more than 50 different criteria, weighing different crimes against each other (murder carrying far more importance than, say, burglary), and factoring in incidents both on-campus and nearby (because modern colleges, as everyone acknowledges, don’t stop strictly at the gates of the ivory towers). Local FBI data was also used to make the statistics as up-to-date as possible. (See full methodology on the next page.) Schools were also judged on a crimes-per-capita basis so that large universities like Michigan State weren’t penalized when compared with small colleges like Amherst.

That many of these schools are located in rural areas or small towns isn’t surprising (though several schools from the New York City area, including one in Manhattan, made the cut). More telling are the techniques many of the winners are using to keep their campuses safe. Lessons abound.

To be fair, even the numbers reported to the Department of Education are frequently criticized as imperfect and, indeed, schools are regularly fined for noncompliance. (The giant City University of New York would have made this Top 25 list, but recent stories about alleged underreporting of crime statistics under Clery prompted us to provisionally remove them from our list.) Surely, some schools gaming the system are included on this list, bumping others that were steadfastly honest. Congress this fall is expected to strengthen Clery’s safety regulations. Additionally, in determining our methodology, we made numerous fair-minded but necessarily subjective decisions. We intend to constantly refine our methodology, and welcome feedback.

METHODOLOGY:

Our methodology is obviously important, and we want to be as transparent as the most forthright colleges were in reporting statistics to the federal government. First, we took two years of the most recent data (to smooth out any one-year aberrations) provided by each college to the U.S. Department of Education. We included criminal incidents on campus, including residence halls, and off-campus, including sidewalks, parks, and transit stops, corresponding with a broader map of campus reach filed by each school. We then focused solely on reported crime statistics, rather than arrests (which measure the efficacy of the local police, rather than criminal incidents) and disciplinary procedures (largely drug and alcohol possession). For universities that have more than one campus in the same metropolitan area, stats for those campuses were combined.

Second, since not all crimes are alike, we more heavily weighted the most violent offenses. We considered burglary and motor vehicle theft the most pedestrian. Robbery, which differs from burglary in that it generally involves taking property off a person, was weighted three times as high as those two categories. Aggravated assault and arson, five times. Manslaughter, 10 times. Murder, 20 times. The trickiest category was rape. Acquaintance rape is not broken out, and many schools that do the most to support and encourage victims to report the crime—and are thus in many ways the safest environments—also had the most incidents. We wound up giving it standard weighting, in an attempt to balance the crime’s severity without overpenalizing schools that report the most because they offer more support.

Third, because the most recent Department of Education data cuts off at the end of 2007, we adjusted each school’s number for the violent crime rate increase or decrease in the local area, as determined by the FBI, between then and the end of 2008, to make the numbers, by proxy, as current as possible.

Finally, that raw score was then divided by the student body so that students at smaller schools and giant universities could be compared apples-to-apples. (For the “safest schools” ranking, we did not rank any school with fewer than 6,000 students, undergraduate and graduates combined, because most smaller schools don’t have the same crime issues that larger, more complex campuses do.) That’s how we developed the Daily Beast ranking.

Clark Merrefield was the chief researcher for this ranking.