Colleges' Full Disclosure

A COLLEGE consumer-warning label? That's what a new law about to pass Congress amounts to. Spurred by recent high-profile crimes on US campuses, the new law, if enacted, will require institutions of higher learning by the summer of 1993 to report their crime statistics.

The pending law, which originated as a sports bill, will also require schools to make public their graduation rates. Thus parents, athlete-applicants, and alumni will know the educational priorities and successes of a college's athletic department.

Both requirements are laudable. But disclosing numbers is no panacea. At best, the new law will probably help around the margins. At the worst, it will be misleading.

Having to publish empirical crime statistics that would invariably get picked up by the media and compared in college ``shopping guides'' may spur some schools to improve their security. Fine, no problem. Reported crimes are rising on campus by 5 percent a year. There were some 22,170 break-ins at schools last year; 13,000-plus physical assaults. Some few schools may stand out as crime-ridden because they have no discernible reason for being so. A relatively contained rural campus with any serious ongoing crime ought to undergo scrutiny. Schools may have to change the atmosphere on campus.

Yet today colleges are more disparate places than ever. Who knows where a campus begins and ends? How should crime statistics be measured? Students choosing an urban school know already that safety may be an issue. Alert parents are already concerned. But colleges administrations cannot control all facets of campus life. The murder of several students at the University of Florida in Gainesville (a relatively small-town school) in August does not mean the school ought to be permanently stigmatized. Nor does it mean students will be safer at Florida State in Tallahassee (a bigger town). Some urban schools may do a better overall job at security than suburban schools.

Likewise, the issue of graduation rates. Schools must allow students six years to graduate, then report when they don't. But what does this really say? Students today wander. Are small schools that take less-accomplished students to be penalized? A new rule by the NCAA requires schools to publish graduation rates. That singles out schools where lack of graduation isn't due to a high-pressure, multimillion-dollar sports program, but for other reasons.

Full disclosure by colleges may be a progressive step. But consumers, beware how you read the stats. They aren't definitive.

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