Education Department receives many complaints about racial harassment in higher education, but makes relatively few findings

In an op-ed this month on rising racial tensions on campus, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that in his seven years in office, the department’s Office for Civil Rights has received more than 1,000 complaints about racial harassment in higher education. He said this statistic was an indication that the current concerns about race on campus are “no small issue.”

Duncan didn’t note how small a proportion of those complaints have resulted in findings of discrimination. Most of the complaints, in fact, never result in a complete investigation by OCR, let alone a finding. That isn’t necessarily a sign of weak complaints or of poor enforcement by OCR. A review of more information provided by the Education Department, however, may illustrate why students are turning to campus protests and not to Washington with their grievances.

The Data on Complaints

During the Obama administration, the Education Department has received 1,073 complaints about racial harassment in higher education. Generally, the number of complaints a year is up, compared to prior years. Since 2010, the smallest number of complaints in a fiscal year is 137 (in 2010). In the five years prior to the Obama administration, the number of complaints never exceeded 95 and was generally smaller than that (in the 50s). An increase in complaints does not necessarily mean that the situation on campus is worse, since a variety of factors (such as outreach to encourage complaints, or the government signaling interest in enforcement) can be a factor in the number of complaints.

Of the 1,073 complaints, 227 have been …