Perceptions About Public v. Private College Crime Rates Aren’t Accurate

Published: April 30, 2008

It is important to educate students and their families to examine crime rates in a more sophisticated manner to ensure they have an accurate perspective regarding the safety of campus environments. By not doing so, they are susceptible to incorrect inclinations about the safety conditions of groups of colleges.

The public and private post-secondary institutions in America are often associated with particular characteristics. Private schools, for example, are generally considered to be comprised of more affluent and academically accomplished students in addition to boasting higher graduation rates. Moreover, tuition at private schools is higher, class sizes are smaller, and the environments are often more intellectually focused.

In contrast, public institutions are often larger with respect to enrollment and class sizes, in addition to being comprised of students covering a wide spectrum of academic achievements. Additionally, the environments of many public colleges and universities are often categorized as being less intellectually focused and more attractive to students with lower income levels.

Public Campus Per Capita Crime Rates Lower than Private Colleges
Resonating with these generalizations is the fact that upon cursory review of institutional and governmental campus crime statistics, public universities seem to be less safe than private institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). These statistics, however, are based on the raw number of incidents and do not take into account the varying enrollment sizes of public and private schools.

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According to the “Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2005 Report,” there were 4,360,934 full-time undergraduate students enrolled in public colleges and universities, and 1,967,923 full-time undergraduate students enrolled in private institutions as of Fall 2005 (IPEDS, 2006). In other words, there were nearly 2.5 million more students enrolled in public colleges than at private ones during this time period.

With such a vast difference in the enrollments between publics and privates, in order to get a more accurate picture of what campus crime rates are for these groups of institutions, examining raw numbers of incidents alone does not suffice. Having in excess of 2 million more people will certainly result in a greater number of incidents occurring at public schools.

We would not look at the raw number of crimes committed in California as compared to the total number of crimes occurring in Rhode Island to determine which state has less crime. Instead, because of the disparate population figures, we would examine per capita or per 50,000 people crime rates to get a more accurate picture. By examining the crime rates per capita on college campuses with respect to this particular project, the data indicated that there was more Clery crime occurring at private colleges.

Alcohol, Drug Policies at Private Institutions May Explain the Difference
Additionally, upon closer examination of the data, it should be noted that public schools reported a greater number of alcohol and drug related crimes per capita than private schools. As there are correlations between alcohol and drug use and the proliferation of other crimes (Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, 1995), it is surprising that public campuses do not have more crime in the other areas.

At first, I could not make sense of this, but then considered a few experiences I have had at private institutions. For instance, while visiting some friends who attended a private institution in the Midwest during my undergraduate years, I remember being taken aback by the fact that my friends, who were under the age of 21 at the time, were allowed to consume alcohol in their residence halls as long as they stayed in their rooms while they drank and registered their parties with the housing staff.

This to me indicates that perhaps private schools have less stringent standards with regard to alcohol and maybe even drug use than public institutions. As a result, it is likely that alcohol and drug crimes are being less commonly reported at private schools than at public institutions. As such, if there were in fact more alcohol and drug crimes occurring at private schools, then it would make sense that this group of institutions would display higher per capita crime rates in other areas. This would explain what appears to be the dissonance inherent within the conclusions drawn from the data.

More important than the fact that private colleges displayed a slightly higher per capita crime rate than the public schools is the fact that we need to educate higher education consumers about how to examine campus crime statistics in a more nuanced fashion. If not, a risk is that they may look at the sheer number of incidents at public institutions and the limited number of reported alcohol and drug related crimes at private institutions. This may lead them to develop grossly inaccurate perspectives with respect to the state of campus safety at America’s colleges.


Mike Chapman is currently a graduate student at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He is graduating with a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs in June 2008 and will be starting a Ph.D. program in cultural foundations, technology, and qualitative inquiry immediately thereafter, also at OSU. His primary research interests are issues within higher education and student affairs in addition to technology as a sociocultural phenomenon. Chapman is currently a hearing officer at OSU’s student judicial affairs department. He can be reached at chapman.233@osu.edu.

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