College Safety: Complete Guide for Students and Parents

College campuses tend to be fairly safe, with fewer than 20 crime incidents reported per 10,000 full-time students in 2018 (the most current year for which data is available).¹ But that doesn’t mean you should leave safety and security basics at home with your parents and high school trophies.

Make sure you’re using your brain power for studying instead of crime-fighting with this comprehensive guide to college safety. Being proactive now can prevent a lot of stress (for you and Mom and Dad) later.



Meet our experts

To give you the best college safety tips, we shared insights from our experts throughout this guide.

dr-ben-stickle

Dr. Ben Stickle

PhD, Criminal Justice and Theft Expert

pete-canavan

Pete Canavan

IT Security and Personal Safety Expert

Campus safety tips

female jogger sitting on steps on campus talking on phone

You shouldn’t just rely on campus police and security for campus safety. Here are a few safety must-haves for every college student—plus some bonus resources to help you dodge potential trouble.

  • Create a campus emergency contact. Save the emergency phone or text number for your campus police department in your phone and make it a favorite so it’s easy to call for help in an emergency.
  • Look for on-campus emergency help. Most universities have Blue Light Telephones placed around campus for emergency help. Find them, learn how they work, and take routes that keep you close to one.
  • Sign up for notifications. If your school has a mass notification system (usually through text, push notifications, or email), make sure you sign up and adjust your privacy settings to let these important messages get through. These systems can send emergency notifications about extreme weather events or serious situations like an active shooter.
  • Learn the layout of your campus. Keep an eye out for areas with little or no lighting, limited visibility, and other tricky spots that you’ll want to avoid after dark. Don’t head out to an unknown area for the first time by yourself or after sunset.
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Expert tip: Get to know campus police and security resources

“If you’re the victim of a crime or just have concerns about a situation, reach out to the folks on campus who can help you. Remember, the university wants you to have a safe and good experience and will work to help you at any time.

“Services that you won’t find off campus may include: door/vehicle unlocks, safety escorts, lost and found, assistance completing police reports, counseling, extra patrol for suspicious behaviors, free self-defense classes, emergency phones, even off campus transportation if you’ve had too much to drink to make it back to campus.

“But, in many cases, you need to be aware of what is offered at your campus and take the initiative to reach out to those who want to help.”

—Dr. Ben Stickle, criminal justice and theft expert

Campus safety resources

Apartment and dorm safety tips

dorm room with computer and desk

College is often the first time when we’re the grown-ups in the house. We can’t rely on parents or other adults to make sure we’re locking doors and taking other college safety precautions. Up your college safety game with these in-depth resources:

  • Reinforce or upgrade locks. Ask your Resident Assistant (RA) or landlord to make sure you’re not violating a lease or other agreement before swapping out or adding a lock.
  • Protect your personal valuables in a safe or add a security latch to drawers and closets. If you want to see who’s sneaking your sweaters, add a security cam or motion sensor with mobile alerts.
  • Check batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. It’s now up to you to make sure these life-saving devices are in working order. If you live with roomies, add a battery check to a list of quarterly chores and give everyone a turn.

Expert tip: Don’t forget to lock the door

“Keep your dorm door locked when you're not inside. It’s tempting to leave your door open as you visit with friends down the hall, but this leaves your belongings open to an easy and quick theft. Be sure to coordinate with your roommate to ensure they do the same.”

—Dr. Ben Stickle, criminal justice and theft expert

Apartment and dorm safety articles

Apartment and dorm safety videos

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Get free security from Amazon Alexa

If you’ve got an Amazon Echo device, you already have built-in home security for your dorm or apartment—and it won’t cost you another penny to activate it. Learn how Alexa Guard listens for suspicious sounds like glass breaking and emergency events like the smoke alarm going off.

Video: Watch how to set up Alexa Guard in 45 seconds or less.

Personal safety tips

Personal Safety

Odds are you’ll find yourself in unfamiliar places as you dive into your college experience. This is the perfect time to hone your personal safety skills and start turning best practices into lifelong habits. Here are a few basics to get you started; explore our resources for more in-depth tips and tactics.

Expert tip: Develop proactive safety habits

“Paying attention to the people, environment, and objects around you at all times as well as not being distracted or complacent in your daily routines is the first step toward staying safe; if you can't be surprised, you will be a harder person to sneak up on. Change your daily routines to prevent the complacency that is bred from familiarity. “You must notice things that warrant additional attention. Don't ignore something that gives you reason to be suspicious—your ‘gut’ is rarely wrong.”

—Pete Canavan, personal safety expert and cybersecurity consultant
  • Don’t go it alone. One of the great things about college is you get the chance to make friends. Another great thing is there’s safety in numbers. Buddy up when you’re walking across campus late at night or checking out all the social events around town.
  • Keep your head up. It’s tempting to give your phone most of your attention when you’re moving around campus. Resist! Walk with your head up (not buried in a device), use a confident stride, and if you must use earbuds, keep at least one ear free to listen for sounds around you while you travel.
  • Use mobile tech if you need help. Using your phone isn’t always a bad idea. There are a lot of free apps and online resources available that you can use in emergency situations. Many of these apps (like Noonlight) act like a remote panic button and can instantly connect you to emergency help.
  • Secure bikes and vehicles. It’s important to lock up your car and secure your ride (bike, board, scooter, etc.) with a quality lock. But you also need to pay attention to where you park them. Only leave your car or bike in well-lit areas, and be prepared as you approach. Have your keys out and ready to go so you can’t be surprised while fumbling to find them.

Expert tip: Thwart campus thieves

“Bikes and stack boards are often stolen on a college campus. A simple locking device is a great way to secure your ride. Many times these are stolen for a convenient ride for another student who is running late, so large locks may not be necessary to deter [someone] ‘borrowing’ your bike. “Additionally, many campuses provide bike refineries where you can record your bike's description and serial number, which will help you locate your bike . . . or complete a police report if [it’s] stolen and not recovered on campus.”

—Dr. Ben Stickle, criminal justice and theft expert

Personal safety resources

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Expert tip: Simple self-defense moves

“Physical self-defense training should be simple to learn and easy to remember for those looking for basic self-defense. The best rule of thumb is to ‘follow the centerline’ of the opponent—attack targets along the center of the body, as follows: 

  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Throat
  • Solar plexus
  • Groin
  • Knees


“Remember, your legs are longer and stronger than your arms, so use them. Also, your elbow is the hardest part of your body—use it against various targets if the fight gets in close.”

—Pete Canavan, personal safety expert and cybersecurity consultant

Online security tips

Woman using laptop computer on couch

One thing you won’t leave behind when you head off to university is the internet. Your online life will likely be more active than ever, so it’s a good time to brush up on basic online safety.

  • Be careful with public Wi-Fi. In fact, avoid it altogether if you can. Public networks are the most vulnerable to hacking and if you’re on one, that means your devices are also vulnerable. If you must use public Wi-Fi, get a virtual private network (VPN) connection to help hide you from hackers.
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PRO TIP

Your college’s Wi-Fi network should be a closed, secure network, but using a VPN is still the safest way to go online when you’re away from home.

  • Secure your personal Wi-Fi: If you set up your own network at an apartment or dorm, be sure to secure the network with a strong password, unique (not humorous or tempting) network name, and updated encryption and firewall technology.
  • Beware before you share: You don’t want to be that person, but there’s good reason to be picky about who you share your Wi-Fi network or even your Netflix account credentials with. Every new user or device is another potential vulnerability. Be stingy with your online info and if you do share it, make sure to change it soon after.
  • Slow your online shopping roll. We get it. You’re the captain, now—at least when it comes to paying your bills and making the most of Prime Day. But before you make it rain, now is the ideal time to build healthy online financial habits. First of all, don’t do any financial transactions (that includes checking your balance to cover the night’s tab) on public Wi-Fi.
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Expert tip: Online financial transaction smarts

“When using your card to make purchases online, make sure that the site is secure by showing a lock icon in the address bar. [The name of the website] should also start with ‘https’ and not ‘http’ to indicate a secure website.

“It is highly recommended to use a credit card for online purchases instead of your debit card. That way if your card number is somehow compromised (e.g. the company’s computer system is hacked), you will be able to easily dispute the charges and only be liable for $50. If your debit card linked to your checking account is used, it doesn’t offer the same measure of protection and may take much longer (if ever) to get your money back.

“Typically, you will be refunded, even with a debit card/checking account being compromised if it has the Visa or MasterCard logo. However, it may take longer, which could impact your ability to continue to pay bills and have access to your money in order to live.”

—Pete Canavan, personal safety expert and cybersecurity consultant

Online security articles

Online security videos

Crime prevention tips for college students

simplisafe hub on counter

As we noted earlier, college campuses aren’t rife with crime, but they’re not immune either. Here are some key takeaways from a chat with our criminal justice expert, Dr. Ben Stickle, who also happens to be a university professor.

Find out how much crime happens on your campus

If you’re choosing a university, you may want to review their annual security report. Every college in the US is required by the Clery Act to post a report/review of all crimes occurring on and nearby the campus. This report is usually found on the campus safety or campus police website.

But these reports only include crimes reported to the university, so these crime statistics may be incomplete. Among crimes that may be underreported are sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and alcohol-related incidents. However, campus safety reports can be used to understand the frequency and type of crimes that occur within a campus community. This can help you make an informed decision as you choose a university.

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You can also research safety and security reports for any college on the US Department of Education Campus Safety and Security website.

Learn campus boundaries

Campus boundaries can change quickly, and you should be aware of your surroundings. Many times, a campus is safer than the surrounding communities. It’s easy for students to lower their guard while on campus and forget to be on guard as they move off campus.

It’s also smart to learn the jurisdiction of the campus police versus local enforcement. Many colleges have agreements with city and county law enforcement to work together, but sometimes you may need to make a report to a different agency or public safety officer than you expected.

Keep your valuables close to you at all times

It’s common to leave your laptop or backpack behind when you run to the restroom, or throw your keys down to reserve a table, but these habits are risky. While your campus may be very safe, a phone, computer, ID, backpack, or textbooks left unattended on a table or chair can be an easy target for theft.

Protect your car and what’s inside it

Vehicles are prime targets on college campuses. Whether it’s theft from inside (such as a phone, backpack, or other valuable), theft of parts (such as a pickup tailgate or catalytic converter), or theft of the entire vehicle, here’s how to reduce your exposure:

  • Be sure you lock your vehicle at all times and keep valuables out of sight.
  • Try to park in high-traffic areas where your car is visible to people as they pass by.
  • Look for areas where there is good lighting at night.
Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past eight. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime reports and spotting trends. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, NPR, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips.

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