The Best and Worst College Campuses for Sexual Health, Ranked

Just in time for back to school season, some sobering data on college sex.

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Aug 28 2016, 3:00pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It's that time of year again, when millions of college students across the US move into dormitories, buy overpriced textbooks, and gear up for the fall semester.

While the majority of these students select their alma mater based on criteria like location, cost, or academic reputation, many other factors shape the college experience. Some may not be issues that an institution wants to advertise—like, for instance, the sexual health of its students.

Now, new independent research from The State of Education, a data science startup aimed at prospective students, has illustrated this darker side of college life with a series of visualizations mined from public data sources such as Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports.

"The impetus for the research came in response to a few things," Andrew Larson, the lead data scientist on the project, told me. "The consistent rise in all major sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as detailed in the latest CDC STD report; the sexual assault epidemic currently plaguing college campuses, and the disparity in responses by university administrations and law enforcement to these issues; and, to a lesser extent, the growth of casual dating apps like Tinder."

Evaluating all these influences requires a MacGyver-level resourcefulness with data, especially because colleges don't release information about the STD rates of their students. To estimate which institutions had the best and worst STD rates, Larson created a scorecard of indirect categories including the college's access to contraception, average campus sexual assault rate, and the public STD data of the college's surrounding region (the latter is illustrated below).

By this metric, these are the ten most sexually healthy colleges in the US, with Oregon State University in the lead. Go Beavers!

Meanwhile, Larson's approach deemed these ten institutions as the least sexually healthy colleges in the nation, with Marquette University in Milwaukee cinching the dubious honor of the top spot. Be careful out there, Golden Eagles.

It's important to note that the research methodology featured in this article is based on reported crime statistics from the CDC and other public sources. It does not account for the number of unreported assaults on college campuses, which is projected to be much higher than represented in these visualizations. The study also does not factor in the possibility of colleges providing inaccurate numbers when it comes to sexual assault rates.

The State of Education study also delves into some interesting speculative correlations between STD outbreaks with certain periods of the college school year.

As illustrated in the above graph, chlamydia rates have skyrocketed by an astonishing 6,917 percent since 1984. Even factoring in that this spike is bolstered by more widespread access to STD checkups, chlamydia remains the big STD on campus by a wide margin.

Google trends reveal that searches for "chlamydia symptoms" peak around late September and late January, and experience smaller spikes around holidays. Larson's team proposes that these correlations may be timed to the rhythm of college semesters.

"We attribute the initial rise to the start of Fall term at semester colleges," the study reads. "The highest point of the peak doesn't come until late September when the total number of students on campuses around the nation is compounded by the start of colleges on the quarter system. After reaching this conclusion, we reason that the highest peak occurs in mid-January as a result of students from both semester and quarter colleges returning to school around the same time, following Christmas break."

This kind of research highlights the rapidly shifting landscape of campus sexual health, and the need for more direct and comprehensive ways to keep tabs on it. After all, college is supposed to be about making friends and learning skills, not frantically Googling STD symptoms when you should be studying for midterms.

Update: This article has been updated to note that the statistics here are based on data that does not factor in the high rate of unreported assaults or the possibility of colleges providing inaccurate numbers when it comes to sexual assault rates.