Source: Wikimedia / Ben Schumin.

When students and their parents compare colleges, they often look at things like cost, location, financial aid – and reputation. Colleges and universities that have high job placement rates and return on investment, for instance, will likely attract more students than those that do not.

The public release by the Department of Education early this month has put a spotlight on another facet of college life that bears consideration: personal safety. In the interest of transparency, the government publicized the names of 55 U.S. colleges and universities that are currently under investigation for violation of Title 9, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Discrimination includes, not surprisingly, sexual coercion, abuse and assault. While not all of these colleges are on this list due to complaints of that nature, many are -- propelling the subject of campus security and safety into the limelight.

Assault is only part of the picture
Crimes at colleges and universities are varied, just as they are in any given subpopulation. According to the FBI's Crime in the United States 2012, property crime, burglary, and larceny-theft are the most active categories, with violent crimes occurring much less frequently. Still, it's worth checking individual schools' statistics in order to form an opinion about each institution's overall safety.

For example, California has four colleges and universities on the Education Department's Title 9 list. That is enough reason to have reservations about attending any of these schools, but there is more to the story. Comparing the University of California Berkeley, which is on the Title 9 list, to San Diego State, which is not, shows that the former had 33 violent crimes and two forcible rapes, while the latter reported 35 violent crimes and 11 forcible rapes in 2012 – despite the fact that San Diego State has a slightly smaller student population than UC Berkeley. Checking the safety statistics of all schools on your list is absolutely vital.

How schools handle the issue of crime – especially violent crime against persons – is another important consideration. Many crimes go unreported, of course, and sexual assault is considered to be one of the most underreported crimes, according to the National Institute of Justice. If students are afraid to report assaults to campus authorities because they feel nothing will be done, that particular school surely cannot be considered "safe".

Schools on the Title 9 list are not the only ones having issues with sexual assault. For example, Tufts University in Massachusetts and the federal government recently had a scuffle over the school's signed agreement on Title 9 compliance, which is now back on track.

A school's academic reputation is important, but so is its record of personal safety, and no student's college experience should be marred by fear. Researching a college's value should certainly include the quality of student life – and safety should come first.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article referenced Northern Arizona University being “faulted” for handling sexual assault cases. NAU has faced no such criticism. The Fool regrets the error.