KEEPING SAFE AND SECURE

Raised on Maui in a house with no lock on the front door, Rebecca Serle knew she'd have to consider security issues when she thought about attending college. But when she fell in love with the University of Southern California, located in crime-prone South Los Angeles, her questions became even better focused. So when Serle and her parents visited the school, they decided to tack on a security check to their campus visits. Crime statistics showed them that USC was as safe as many other California schools. On campus, her father, Ron, saw many security cops, on foot and bike. And by questioning undergraduates, Serle found that "students really did seem to feel safe." Reassured, she enrolled. Now 18, she's diving into freshman English--and getting used to an unfamiliar dorm keycard.

With academics, location and finances for students to mull over already, campus safety is rarely the paramount issue in college selection. But anecdotal evidence from university officials, parents and counselors suggests it has become more important, particularly after 9-11. Still, despite heightened concerns, officials say, few families know how to dig past the scripted assurances of college brochures. What the experts make clear is that there are right and wrong ways to get information.

First, look at the numbers. Virtually every college is required to file crime statistics over a three-year period with the U.S. Department of Education. Using the DOE Web site (ope.ed.gov/security/Search.asp), check each campus you're considering. First, notice that no campus is crime-free. Nationally in 2001, for example, there were 18 campus homicides and 2,125 forcible sex offenses, including rape. The second key point: property crimes far outnumber the more dangerous crimes against persons.

The data show that urban schools on average are no more dangerous than rural ones--at least for crimes committed on the campuses themselves. (Off campus, the urban schools are indeed less safe.) Use the crime numbers to familiarize yourself, but don't judge schools solely by their numbers. For one thing, the numbers aren't adjusted for a school's size, making big universities seem a bit like crime-scenes-with-a-faculty, compared with tiny liberal-arts colleges. Also, it's of-ten hard to tell if high numbers spring from poor security--or the opposite. Good policing, after all, leads to more arrests.

Numbers in hand, your next step should be the campus visit. Listen to what admissions officials say about campus safety, but that's just the beginning. While you're checking out Econ 101, size up the campus police. Many colleges have raised training standards for campus police, but some remain glorified security guards. (September 11 helped push the trend toward professionalism along, as schools ratcheted up emergency planning and joint training with local cops.) Campus hardware is also important. Do locks actually work? Do emergency phones? Or closed-circuit TVs at key entry points? Try directing questions at people who aren't often asked them. Whatever their innate honesty, admissions officers and student guides are selling the school, so get past them. Query real students. You may get better answers if parents let prospective students do the questioning, particularly on touchy subjects. "I find that it helps if girls can talk to girls," says Denver admissions consultant Steve Antonoff. They can ask if students think they can walk safely downtown at night or from the dorm to the library.

Information will take a parent or applicant only so far. Safety and security aren't just about locked doors, emergency phones and vigilant police. A student's own behavior is half the battle. Losing a high schooler's naivet?? may be a difficult part of growing up, but it can help freshmen avoid becoming a crime statistic. And not just if you're from Maui.