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Ranking colleges based on reported campus rapes is a horrible, dangerous idea

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

For the first time this year, colleges are required to publicly disclose the number of rapes, broken out from sexual assaults, reported on their campuses. That means it's possible to create a list of the most rape-ridden colleges in the US. And of course, because there has never been a ranked list of colleges on the internet that people won't click on, that's exactly what is happening.

This is a terrible idea.

Shaming colleges for a high number of rape reports, and implying that those with very few look good in comparison, isn't just wrongheaded. It's dangerous, giving colleges a strong incentive to bury their heads in the sand and discourage victims of rape from coming forward about what happened to them.

It's tragic that there were 43 reported on-campus rapes at Brown University in 2014, according to data from the Department of Education — the highest number on any campus in the country.

But it's just as horrifying that scores of colleges, including huge campuses like New York University, reported the same year that they were utterly rape-free. Because an absence of rape reports doesn't mean an absence of rape.

Rape statistics aren't just misleading — they're meaningless

The biggest problem with the college rape statistics is that it's hard to say what they really mean. The colleges with the most reported rapes might actually have more aggressive and violent cultures. But it's also possible that they're less toxic environments for rape victims, who feel safe making reports because they know their concerns will be heard.

Or they might have a mix of both: A high-profile allegation of sexual assault can draw more attention and awareness to the issue. The Education Department has seen skyrocketing complaints about how colleges handle sexual assault over the past five years, but few people think that it's because colleges have suddenly enrolled exponentially more rapists. Instead, media attention has made victims more aware of their rights and spurred a boom in complaints.

So ending up on a list of colleges with more reported rapes isn't good — but the alternative isn't necessarily good either. It's very, very hard to say without knowing more about the specifics of the campus and the situation.

And that's even more acute at the other end of the spectrum: colleges that said they had no reported rapes whatsoever.

Maybe those colleges have found the holy grail of a remarkably effective sexual assault prevention program and have selfishly refused to share their secrets. Maybe they hit the jackpot of both enrolling zero rapists that academic year and building a rape-proof fence to repel outsiders.

Or maybe victims of rape on those campuses don't feel comfortable coming forward to make a report.

In 2014, New York University had nearly 50,000 students — and, according to the Education Department data, zero reported rapes. The same is true for the University of Louisville, with about 23,000 students. And the University of South Dakota. And Ohio Northern University. And many, many Christian colleges, which tend to have a more repressive atmosphere around sexual activity that could discourage students from making reports.

In all, more than half of the colleges in the Education Department's database of four-year colleges where some students live on campus — the kinds of colleges people talk about, usually, when they talk about campus rape — reported no rapes in 2014.

It would be wonderful if that were true. But nearly every study of campus sexual assault (and there have now been many) has come to a similar conclusion: The chance that a woman will be sexually assaulted while enrolled in college is about 1 in 5. (Rape is a narrower category than sexual assault, and less prevalent, but that doesn't explain the disparity.)

Rape is an underreported crime, and college crime statistics are public. If colleges know they'll be vilified for high numbers of rape cases, they have a strong incentive to create a culture where students are subtly discouraged from reporting. The answer isn't to flip the script and praise colleges with high numbers of rapes — they should have to explain what's happening on campus. It's to understand that sometimes data can muddy more than it illuminates.

Watch: 9 facts about violence against women everyone should know