Students Beware

Students Beware

Imagine if hundreds of thousands of consumers were being exposed to a product that carried with it a 20% chance of serious mental and/or physical harm. Now imagine that the advertising for that product not only carried no warnings whatsoever, but portrayed the product as providing an engaging, fulfilling, and rewarding experience with negligible safety risks. And further imagine that the seller of that product got away with offering it for decades without any meaningful penalties or corrections whatsoever.

Fiction, you say? The demented fantasy of some corporate predator? Could never happen here? Think again. This is reality. The sellers are our colleges and universities, the product is an undergraduate education – and the harm is sexual assault, which studies show an average of one of five female students will have suffered by the time they graduate, usually in their freshman year when they are at their most vulnerable.

To be sure, these institutions of higher learning are now – belatedly and under external pressure –scrambling to put frameworks in place to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault, the sad and sordid story of accusation, denial, shaming and complicity. Most of these processes are ineffectual, mired in academic politics and procedural quicksand.

Wouldn’t it be much more effective, and much more humane, to require these colleges and universities to provide adequate warnings to incoming students and their families? To balance the rosy self-promotion, the glossy pictures of ivy-covered libraries and happy undergraduates relaxing on the sunny green commons, with the clear message: Beware! Your daughter is at significant risk of sexual assault here, especially in her first semester! And here are some precautions she can take to reduce that risk (like never going to a party without a buddy who will ensure she leaves the event safely; like never accepting a drink from someone she doesn’t know well; like managing her drinking in general; etc.).

… we require drug companies to warn patients that they might get dizzy from taking their medicine, but don’t require colleges to warn female students and families that the students have a 20% chance of unwanted sexual contact.

Why do we need these warnings, you say? Doesn’t everyone know this already? Well, doesn’t “everyone know” that cigarettes are bad for you? Doesn’t “everyone know” airbags can injure or kill little children who aren’t seated and belted properly? Doesn’t “everyone know” prescription drugs carry risks of side effects? In these areas, as in so many others, we have wisely decided not to rely on “everyone knows,” but to mandate explicit safety warnings to help protect vulnerable consumers. So … we require drug companies to warn patients that they might get dizzy from taking their medicine, but don’t require colleges to warn female students and families that the students have a 20% chance of unwanted sexual contact? Does this make any sense at all?

Of course there are many other things that can and should be done to reduce this plague of sexual assault that leaves so many young women and their families emotionally and physically traumatized – like taking meaningful steps to combat the poisonous sexual culture and the rampant alcohol abuse on campuses, and setting up effective processes to punish and deter rapists. But while we’re waiting for those things to happen – and if history is any guide, it will be a long wait – why not put in place a simple requirement that colleges and universities include in all promotional materials (websites, brochures, catalogs, etc.) an explicit warning about the serious sexual dangers that the college experience undeniably poses for young women? Getting a college education shouldn’t mean unwittingly exposing yourself to sexual assault. Let’s mandate these warnings now. Our daughters deserve no less.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently live in Shanghai, crossing borders and exploring cultures in Asia.



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