When Giang Nguyen, the director of Student Health Service, saw that the University of Pennsylvania was ranked No. 10 on a list of universities with the worst sexual health, he was puzzled.
A recent article published by Vice’s video channel Motherboard ranked the best and worst United States colleges by sexual health, taking into account factors like sexually transmitted infection rates and average campus sexual assault rates.
However, the data used in the article presents several issues, Nguyen said. It draws its information from a report done by The State of Education, which it calls a “data science startup.” The website’s disclaimer calls itself “a free service which makes no warranty of accuracy of data, large collections of data may have varying levels of statistical significance not all of which are explicitly noted.”
Because universities don’t release the STI rates of the student body, the report used what the Vice author called a “Macgyver-level resourcefulness with data,” by instead using a STI rates of the surrounding region — in Penn’s case, the entire city of Philadelphia.
Using county-wide data for STIs in place of data specific to Penn is what’s known as a proxy measure, explained Nguyen.
“I do find that it is easy to use numbers in creative ways and proxy measures can be very helpful in many ways, but you have to use them with a level of sophistication,” Nguyen said. “If the way you use it is too crude, it can lead you down a very misleading path.”
In this case, the report could hypothetically have instead ranked Drexel University or Temple University, and would have listed the exact same STI rate.
“We know that the population of our campus is very different from the general population of the city of Philadelphia,” Nguyen said. “You can be misled tremendously if you were to read the headline alone.”
The statistics for sexual assaults draw their data from the Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey conducted in 2015. However, the survey measured various indicators of sexual assault on campus, and the report does not mention which indicator it is using.
The Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter, was also confused by some of the methods used in the report.
“It almost seems as if they pooled a bunch of questions and their datasets together, which can be a very inappropriate use or communication of data results,” Halbritter said.
Also, sexual assault rates do not include incidents that go unreported, so a higher rate does not necessarily imply more sexual assaults, but could rather imply that more students are reporting them. The article even admits that unreported sexual assaults are “projected to be much higher than represented in these visualizations.”
Halbritter added that the report could have used college-based data from the National College Health Assessment data.
“Penn-specific data is not available publicly, but there’s already a dataset that exists primarily for the college population and it’s surprising that they didn’t use it,” Halbritter said.
The article was particularly surprising to Nguyen — he believes Penn has been a leader in sexual health. He pointed out that free condoms are available at various locations on campus, and other contraceptive care and STI testing is offered at SHS.
Nguyen also noted that Penn is one of the first universities to offer transgender health services through the student health insurance plan, which includes coverage for hormone therapy.
The Campus Health program also participates in Sex Week, the sexual health programming required for members of Greek organizations.
The University has also taken measures to address sexual assault on campus, and just this year, the Vice Provost for University Life added two new positions dedicated to sexual violence prevention and awareness.
When recent protesters posted flyers denouncing a suggestive email as perpetuating rape culture, the University supported the students’ actions as “consistent with the University’s ongoing efforts and the national conversation about preventing and responding to sexual misconduct.”
“I was really kind of baffled when I saw that headline and so that’s one of the challenges when we see these types of reports,” Nguyen said.
This is not the first time that Penn’s sexual culture has made headlines. The New York Times famously published an article in 2013 titled ‘She Can Play That Game Too’ that claimed that Penn women prefer casual sex over relationships to focus on career ambitions. The article was based on interviews with 60 women, and not on any statistical data.
“This is a startup that’s trying to get people to visit their website,” Nguyen said, referring to The State of Education. “I would caution folks to use the data with a grain of salt.”
“I do think that it’s important for consumers of media and especially pop culture media to view data with the appropriate lens,” Halbritter said. “I think this is a good example of a very gross misrepresentation of data.”Comments powered by Disqus
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