The Education Department says it was trying to make it simpler for institutions to report crime and campus safety statistics required by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. But experts in the law’s reporting requirements said the move — eliminating a thick department handbook guiding administrators — will cause even more confusion for institutions, and possibly more work.
Eliminating the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting does address complaints by colleges and universities that it required too much of administrators. But replacing the 265-page document with a 13-page addendum to another handbook, on administering financial aid, goes too far, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses. The consulting company advises institutions on the law’s requirement that federally funded institutions disseminate an annual security report to employees and students with statistics of campus crime.
“Instead of taking the time to correct the guidance, the department decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Carter, who published a blog post on the change.
The department announced it was rescinding the handbook two years ago, as part of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos’s “commitment to reducing the regulatory burden on institutions,” according to a notice of the change.
The 265-page document had grown to include guidances that were not required by laws or regulations, the department said. Institutions, though, could still feel pressured to follow them for fear of being sanctioned.
The department referred also to a 2015 bipartisan Senate report on the regulation of higher education, which called the handbook “unnecessarily voluminous.”
Five years after the report, the department’s shorter addendum gives institutions more discretion to define such things as which campus administrators are required to report campus crime statistics to the department, and what area constitutes the campus in order to compile the data.
“Our goal was to provide guidance to institutions that would enable them to focus on maintaining a safe and secure environment, rather than spending time and resources generating reports that few students or parents consult, and that could overwhelm them with excessive data that obscures the most important and helpful parts of these reports,” the department’s announcement said.
The move eliminates some reporting guidances that have frustrated institutions, Carter said, including giving the impression that faculty advisers to student groups have to file campus crime statistics.
The handbook had also said colleges’ Clery reports had to include the crime statistics of hotels if a student stayed there for two or more nights on college-sponsored trips.
“Those two alone were taking up a significant amount of time for people collecting information for the Clery Act,” he said.
The change was also welcomed by Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations. The handbook, which over the years has become a compilation of answers the department has given to colleges’ questions, has grown beyond the original intent of the law, he said. Colleges have had to get crime statistics from foreign cities where their students are studying abroad and the cities where their teams have traveled to play, he said.
But, on the other hand, Carter worried that giving institutions more discretion to define terms would mean they would have to come up with the definitions with little guidance from the department, and without assurances the department will not object.
He and Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center, which also advises colleges on the reporting requirement, said also the handbook had described in plain terms what administrators are supposed to do.
“No guidance is perfect — we have, in fact, advocated for certain changes to the Handbook to address areas of overcomplication or confusion for institutions,” said a blog post by the Clery Center, which was founded by the parents of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in 1986, and for whom the law is named.
“However,” the post said, “we do not anticipate that there will be fewer questions with the rescission of this guidance altogether. The department just has one less resource available to help answer these persistent questions.”
In addition, Carter and Boyer said, they worry the data collected from colleges will reduce the quality of the data collected under the law because institutions will be using different definitions.
With Election Day approaching, it’s possible a Biden administration could bring the handbook back in a few months if he is elected. But Carter and Boyer said they were unsure what Biden would do.
“I think this is a little too far below his radar,” Carter said.