How much should you believe a new survey that calls UCLA the most dangerous university in the country? About as much as you believe all those eye-catching lists that rank the best place to live, or the most pedestrian-friendly place to live or -- you get the point.
Rankings almost inevitably leave out key information or inflate other data. The results aren’t necessarily invalid, they’re just not necessarily useful either.
In the case of the "danger" rankings by Business Insider, the data have a certain, but limited, validity. The publication examined FBI data of violent and property crimes reported over four years; in measuring danger, it gave more weight to violent crimes. Fair enough. But it only examined crimes for large universities with their own police departments. (And its timing, through 2011, left out some tragic events involving USC students.) It didn’t examine whether those reports were considered to be true or whether they occurred on campus, outraged university officials said.
Yes, but -- since very few students stay strictly on campus, isn’t what happens to them in the surrounding neighborhood relevant? When parents send their offspring to school, you can bet they have an eye on the nearby community. And there’s little reason to believe that one large university would be more likely to receive false reports than another. There could, however, be differences in what sorts of reports different campus police departments might take. If one department will take reports of relatively minor thefts and another won't, that could result in big differences.