Plenty of people think highly of Northwestern. Our school is academically hyper-competitive, sits next to Lake Michigan, and boasts Stephen Colbert as an alumnus.
But as far as Trojan is concerned, we come in at 63.
In its fifth annual Sexual Health Report Card, Trojan Condoms ranked 141 schools according to 12 variables, including the availability of anonymous advice, sexual assault programs, student peer groups and, of course, the cost and availability of condoms. The study was outsourced to Bert Sperling Studies, the independent research firm of Sperling’s BestPlaces.
Columbia University ranks number one, followed by Michigan and Ohio State Universities. In fact, four of the ten top-ranking schools are Big Ten Conference members, and the University of Illinois is the only member graded below Northwestern at 65.
Why is NU so comparably incompetent? It might not be, according to Laura Stuart, MPH, Coordinator of Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention and Advisor of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE). “In my opinion, the Trojan survey is of extremely limited utility because [Sperling] does not take the time to locate a person on each campus who might actually have accurate information about that school’s resources,” she said. ”Anyone can fill it out.”
Identical complaints have been made by the health centers of other schools, such as Harvard University, the University of South Alabama and the University of Cincinnati.
Bert Sperling, the president of Sperling’s BestPlaces, argues this point. Though he could not be reached for an interview, he has been quoted a number of times – claiming that his research firm makes two attempts to contact each school’s health centers, via mail and telephone. If no one can be reached, they default to the center’s website.
Last year, Northwestern ranked 88th in the report. Stuart therefore made an effort to personally fill out the survey this summer, bringing NU to no. 63.
“[That is] my guess as to why [our rank] changed…because our actual services and programs are essentially the same as last year,” said Stuart.
What makes this study even more liable to inaccuracy is its failure to sample a representative group of higher education establishments. There are approximately 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. Sperling’s 141 is a convenient sample of well-known schools, not a scientific study, said Lisa Currie, Northwestern’s director of Health Promotion and Wellness. The report is essentially a marketing tool that gives the condom giant press among prevalent schools.
“Most sexual health professionals, including myself, regard this survey as essentially a meaningless PR tool for Trojan,” Stuart said.
How should sexual health be measured and compared? While no one is proposing that Trojan rank 4,000-plus schools, an accurate sample of U.S. schools would be more revealing of any school’s comparative sexual health.
Another step in the right direction would be to consider students’ actual sexual health—prevalence of STI’s, use of contraception and knowledge of sexual health and assault—rather than the accessibility of their health centers.
However, if Stuart was correct in her assumption that Northwestern’s 2009 ranking of 88 was due to a student’s survey responses, then another issue needs to be addressed: do services and accessibility better mark a school’s sexual health than students’ knowledge of services? The answer is no.
“I don’t think we can expect college students to know everything about sexual health services,” said Drew Gannon, a Medill junior and SHAPE’s Public Relations Chair.
That’s a problem, but one SHAPE is hoping to fix. According to Gannon, SHAPE plans to put a blog online by Spring Quarter, which will make sexual health more accessible and widely communicated. Whether or not this increases Northwestern’s ranking in the Trojan’s sexual health survey is not an issue for Northwestern’s Health Services.
“We don’t use [the report] as a measure of quality for our program,” said Currie. “We rely on assessments from our own students.”
Trojan’s survey is fun, and it generates sexual health conversation on campuses. It may even motivate some schools’ health centers to improve. But, at the end of the day, the survey serves Trojan better than it serves college students.
Editor’s note: Drew Gannon has contributed to North by Northwestern in the past.