1 in 4 Women Experienced Sexual Assault While in College, Survey Finds

The Harvard College arms atop a gate into Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard's president invited the university community to a discussion following the release of a survey on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Almost a quarter of undergraduate women surveyed at some of the top universities across the country said they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct as college students, according to a new report released Monday.

Overall, 23 percent of undergraduate women at 27 universities said they had been physically forced or threatened with force into unwanted sexual contact, according to the Association of American Universities' Campus Climate Survey. For undergraduate men, the percentage was 5 percent. AAU defined sexual assault as actions ranging from "sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence" to "nonconsensual penetration."

The survey, conducted from April 1 to 17, was sent to nearly 780,000 students at the association's 26 member colleges, as well as Dartmouth College, a nonmember. About 150,000 women participated in the online questionnaire.

In recent years, sexual assault has been a growing issue on U.S. college campuses. Last April, the White House called on university officials to improve their handling of sexual assaults. Among their initiatives, federal authorities launched a website to support assault victims and gave colleges suggestions of how to train victims' advocates.

Only a small percentage of serious incidents—5 to 25 percent—were reported to university officials or another group, such as law enforcement, the study found. The most common reason why students didn't disclose the incident to a person of authority was that they didn't think the situation was serious enough.

The findings support often-disputed results released in 2007 by the National Institute of Justice that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted during their college years.

The AAU participating colleges include Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Michigan State and Texas A&M. Officials from most of the schools have released, or said they plan to release, university-specific results, according to The Washington Post. The survey found the most serious sexual assaults were against freshmen women.

Some of the students attended academic establishments that recently have been forced into the public eye for campus assault, such as the University of Virginia. Last November, Rolling Stone published a since-discredited article detailing an alleged fraternity gang rape at that college. Although the magazine retracted the article after it was determined there wasn't an event at the fraternity house on the night the student in the story claimed she was attacked, school officials argue that the school's reputation is now tainted.

At Columbia University in New York City, a student said she would continue luging her mattress around campus for the remainder of the school year as an act of protest against the administration for not expelling the man who she said raped her.

In a statement Monday, Drew Faust, president of Harvard, invited the university community to join her at 7 p.m. for a discussion about the survey results and approaches on how to change people's behavior.

"The data reinforce the alarming frequency with which our students, especially but by no means only our undergraduates, experience incidents of sexual assault," she wrote. "They also underscore how many students lack confidence in how our institution will respond to reports of sexual misconduct—and how many lack adequate knowledge of the resources and support available to them in times of distress and need.

Faust added, "Clearly, we must do more."