Does the federal Clery Act actually make campuses safer?

Quick: name some places in America you regard as highly dangerous. If we could tabulate the responses, nearly all would undoubtedly be big cities or parts of those cities. Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia and so on. We know that crime rates are high in some areas and most of us avoid them for that reason.

Did anyone think of college campuses? Even though violence does sometimes strike on campuses, they are mostly very safe places. As Jason Jones noted in this 2010 Pope Center commentary, in 2008 Detroit reported 306 murders and 17,818 burglaries. Wayne State University, located in Detroit, had no murders and just 45 burglaries.

Wayne State wasn’t perfectly safe. No place can be assumed to be an absolutely safe haven from crime. It was, however, vastly safer than the city as a whole. That is true for colleges and universities generally. People are much less at risk on campus than are residents of the city where it’s located.

In a recent ranking by Business Insider of the worst campuses in the country for violent crime, UCLA was at the top of that list, with an average of 49 incidents per year at a school with 38,157 students. That is a rate of .00138. In Los Angeles as a whole, however, the violent crime rate was .00481 in 2012. UCLA students were much less likely to be victimized than residents of the surrounding city.

The same is true for all other “bad” campuses, including Florida State, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and the University of New Mexico. Violent crime is rare on campus and students are far safer than city residents.

Still, some students, parents, and prospective employees might be interested in campus crime statistics to help guide their decisions. They can get them due to a 1990 federal law that’s known as the Clery Act. That law had its genesis in a horrifying crime at Lehigh University in 1986, the rape and murder of student Jeanne Clery in her dorm room.

Formally known as the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, the law requires colleges and universities to compile and publish data on campus crimes. For example, here are the Clery Act reports from schools in Raleigh, NC, North Carolina State University and Meredith College.

Other requirements under the Act include: enacting policies to handle reports of missing students, compiling and reporting fire data, having an emergency response, notification, and testing policy, issuing timely warnings about crimes which pose a serious or ongoing threat, and maintaining a public crime log.

A number of schools have been fined by the Department of Education for failure to comply. Yale, for one, was fined $115,000 in 2011.

Everyone is against crime and desires to keep campuses safe. The question is whether the Clery Act is effective in that regard. Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Colleges and universities must divert limited resources away from whatever their next-best use would be and into Clery compliance. Larger institutions have full-time compliance officers; smaller ones have to pile more work on existing staff. And to some degree, the cost falls on faculty members who happen to have some tangential relationship with the crime reporting mandates, as Wake Forest University economics professor Robert Whaples explained in “Another Federal Mandate—Or How I Misspent My Summer Vacation.”

If the compliance costs reduced campus crime or at least helped students make better decisions on avoiding relatively unsafe schools, then the costs would seem justified. Unfortunately, there’s good reason to doubt that there are any such benefits.

In their recent book More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, professors Omri Ben-Shahar (University of Chicago) and Carl Schneider (University of Michigan) make a compelling argument that disclosure mandates in general do very little good and can even be harmful. That’s because people are so overwhelmed with information, much of it useless and incomprehensible, that they’re apt to miss pieces of information that might be important. The Clery Act is among the many examples the authors provide of useless disclosures.

Schneider and Ben-Shahar write, “The resources the Act commandeers for collecting and reporting crime data would be better spent making schools safer. One criminologist called the mandate ‘symbolic politics’ and said that safety is likelier to come from installing blue-light telephones and security cameras.”

One of the main points in the indictment Schneider and Ben-Shahar make against mandated disclosure laws is that they dump information on people in ways that make no sense to them and have no bearing on whatever decision they’re facing. Let’s apply that insight to the decision a student faces when deciding among colleges.

Assume that the student believes that variations in safety among the schools under consideration are important enough to warrant investigation. (That assumption puts him into a small minority, by the way. Sara Lipka’s 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article on the Clery Act shows that few people pay any attention to the reports.) How to compare the reports?

Lipka explains why doing so is very problematic. “The reports include total crimes, not rates. Higher numbers may be a result of more-regular police patrols. And, as at UC Davis, creating an environment where students feel comfortable reporting crimes also tends to raise the tallies.” Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume that the school with a lower number of reported crimes is necessarily safer.

School-to-school comparisons are hardly illuminating even if you believe the reports convey reliable information about marginal differences in personal safety. But since all campuses are quite safe, would anyone make a decision based on a small crime rate difference when there are many other considerations that matter far more?

Let’s say that the student has narrowed the choice down to the final two schools. It’s almost impossible to imagine that they would be so perfectly balanced with respect to cost, academics, prestige, campus amenities, sports, location, climate, and any other considerations that perceived campus safety would be determinative.

When students make their decisions, they are no more apt to base them on comparative crime statistics than on small differences between schools regarding traffic safety, the probability of tornadoes, or other uncontrollables.

After they have made their decision and arrive on campus, then they might think about how to avoid danger spots and minimize the likelihood of being victimized.

Ben-Shahar and Schneider argue that people can’t usually process data that’s dumped on them at the macro level. What they can benefit from is good advice from people who are familiar with the data and the issues they have to confront. In the college setting, that means advising students on do’s and don’ts for maximum safety on and around campus.

One scholar who has studied the impact of the Clery Act is Professor Steven Janosik of Virginia Tech and he is skeptical about its approach.

In the article by Sara Lipka, he stated, “These statistical reports aren’t very helpful in the ways they were intended. We’d be spending our time better if we worried less about the minutiae and more about programs and services that have a chance of changing student behavior. I would rather have a police officer doing an educational program, making rounds of the campus, trying to create safer environments, than I would have that individual behind a desk flipping through reports and tallying frequencies.”

That makes perfect sense. It would be better to allow school officials to figure out how best to use limited resources to increase safety than to continue with the “Uncle Sam knows best” strategy.

Disclosure mandates are popular with politicians because they can easily claim to have done something about a problem without really doing anything at all. In the case of the Clery Act, the disclosures have costs, but they seem to have negligible benefit.