A new Department of Justice (DOJ) report raises questions about statistics that have been used to support the call for aggressive college and university response to campus sexual misconduct. Title IX of the Higher Education Act and the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act (VAWA) impose substantial obligations on schools to address that misconduct, particularly rape and sexual assault.

Some politicians, interest groups, and institutional leaders have argued that aggressive enforcement of these obligations is necessary to remedy an epidemic of campus sexual assault. An oft-cited statistic to support the existence of this epidemic is that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college—a statistic the White House’s recent sexual assault task force report cited in its executive summary.

The DOJ report indicates that this statistic is incorrect, suggesting that, in recent years,1 in 52.6 women have been sexually assaulted or raped while in college. Now, some politicians, commentators, and interest groups are arguing that the 1-in-5 statistic has been used as a justification for the adoption of overly aggressive sexual misconduct policies that fail to protect the rights of the accused.

The DOJ report also includes other findings of note:

  •  Females ages 18 to 24 had the highest rate of rape and sexual assault victimizations compared to females in all other age groups.
  • The rate of rape and sexual assault is slightly higher with nonstudents than college students.
  • The rate of rape or sexual assault of students has trended downward since the early 2000s.
  • Student victims were less likely than nonstudents to report an incident to the police.
  • Only 16 percent of student victims received assistance from a victim services agency.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that institutions should take steps to protect their students from sexual assault, although there is an ongoing political debate as to how far those steps should go. The new DOJ report should, however, serve as a point of caution to institutions that rely on or cite the 1-in-5 statistic to justify particular programs or procedures, especially those criticized as failing to adequately protect the rights of the accused.