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Best Practices: Campus Climate Surveys

October 14, 2016

Campus climate surveys have become more popular in the two years since the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault began urging colleges to use them to help prevent campus sexual assault.  These surveys measure the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and gauge students’ attitudes and behaviors.  Schools that conduct their own climate survey – rather than rely on national or regional data – are better equipped to address campus sexual assault because they have data that specifically describes their community.  Every school is unique and past research shows that the behaviors and contexts associated with sexual assault look different on every campus.

This week we published a Student Action Packet that contains several helpful items for students who are working with campus administrators and leaders to launch a climate survey.

If your institution chooses to conduct a campus climate survey, here are some best practices to keep in mind:

Best Practice #1: Confidentiality

It is imperative to ensure that the identity of participants remain confidential.  Throughout the survey, participants should be assured that their responses will remain confidential.  Some institutions may want students to identify themselves on the survey because the school is under the impression that the survey falls under the Title IX reporting obligations, but collecting anonymous data via research is typically not required by Title IX.  Plus, confidentiality encourages honesty and reduces biased responses.  For guidance on confidentiality, see the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Frequently Asked Questions, especially Question E: “Confidentiality and a School’s Obligation to Respond to Sexual Violence,” or contact the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights at or 800-421-3481.

Best Practice #2: Long-Term Action Plan

The high-quality and individualized data a campus climate survey produces gives administrators insight on student’s perceptions about the effectiveness of current strategies as well as the nature and frequency of sexual assault in the community.  To create the most effective and comprehensive change, institutions should use the data to create a follow-up action plan that targets the most needed areas on campus.  Rutgers School for Social Work has created a great example of a follow-up action plan in Chapter 6 “Action Planning and Dissemination” in their Lessons Learned Guide.

Best Practice #3: Electronic Device Accessibility

To increase response rates, keep the survey to an average of 15 minutes and design it so that it can operate on a wide range of electronic devices, including cell phones and tablets (not just desktops and laptops).  Be sure to include a list of local resources after the survey for students to access in the future.

Best Practice #4: Incentives

According to the lessons learned from the Department of Justice's Campus Climate Survey Validation Study, more students respond to campus climate surveys when they receive an incentive of $20-$25.  Researchers found that offering more money did not increase response rates and offering less reduced the response rate.  If available, providing incentives to the campus bookstore or other on-campus vendors can be a good way to reduce overall implementation costs.

Best Practice #5: Content of Questions

One of the most important variables in a survey is the data used to determine the school’s rate of sexual assault.  Be sure to collect data about the specific nature of the violence an individual experienced and the context in which the incident occurred.  Also collect demographic information to determine rates of sexual assault within particular groups (such as race, sexual orientation and age).  The survey also should collect data about an individual’s knowledge of incidents of sexual assault rather than simply measuring perceptions.

Get a free copy of the campus climate survey instrument, developed by the White House Task Force as a companion to the Department of Justice’s Campus Climate Survey Validation Study.  It meets all of these best practices and many more.


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Updated April 27, 2017