It’s Not Easy Being Green

Inside_higher_ed_logo_jpegecoAmerica recently launched its Green Ratings with partner, The Princeton Review.  Inside Higher Ed takes a look at the various environmental ratings that exist for higher ed institutions today. 

Though the article critiques for-profit environmental ratings for their lack of transparency, it does allow that, "…even some
of these critics contend that these listings generate valuable
awareness of environmental issues on college campuses and may drive
some readers to seek out more detailed analyses of their institutions
of choice."

Posted Sept. 4, 2008
By David Moltz, Inside Higher Ed

How environmentally friendly is your college or university? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

As higher education has become more conscious of issues such as sustainability,
a number of independent assessments have arisen from both nonprofit and
for-profit sources. For better or for worse, they all have different
methods of evaluation and serve disparate audiences — and many of these
assessments rely on self-reporting. As these green ratings have
proliferated, many college officials have said they would prefer a
national standard. And some experts think a new environmental rating
being created may become one.

The myriad of assessments evaluating college environmental
performance and sustainability can be separated into two broad
categories. There are those ratings, generally compiled by nonprofit
organizations, that strive to be substantial assessments of an
institution’s commitment to environmental thought and practice. Data
are typically self-reported by colleges and rely upon their
participation for their inclusion in the study. Some critics argue this
self-selection strategy allows under-performing institutions to fly
under the radar. Still, there are some studies that attempt to do their
own independent research in an effort to ensure greater participation
and accuracy by including institutions that do not voluntarily provide
data.

In contrast, there are those rankings and listings, usually
published by for-profit college guides and magazines, aimed at
informing prospective students and their parents of institutions that
put environmental concerns at the fore of their mission. These rankings
are often less scientific and more anecdotal than their non-profit
counterparts, attempting to provide their readers with an easily
digestible critique of select institutions. Some critics argue this
method has the potential to mislead readers and arbitrarily publicize
the efforts of some institutions over others. Nevertheless, even some
of these critics contend that these listings generate valuable
awareness of environmental issues on college campuses and may drive
some readers to seek out more detailed analyses of their institutions
of choice.

Striving for Completeness

The Campus Ecology program of the National Wildlife Federation published what it and most others in the field of assessment consider the first study of environmental performance and sustainability in higher education in 2001. Julian Keniry, the NWF’s director of campus and community leadership, said the initial report was difficult to compile as there were no existing standards.

The NWF’s 2008 report card
surveyed 1,068 institutions; Keniry said that all institutions in the
country were asked to provide data. This rate of participation
constitutes a modest 5 percent growth from that of the initial study,
making it what the organization claims is the largest study of its
kind. The report card does not grade or rank individual institutions.
Rather, it grades all participating colleges collectively on a number
of criteria from A to D. Those conservation issues assessed include
energy, water, transportation, landscaping, waste reduction and
environmental literacy. The survey, Keniry said, was meant to take
institutions a relatively short amount of time to complete: between 20
and 30 minutes per component of the survey, which judged management,
academics and operations. She added that as the survey is
self-reported, it is mean to show activity and not to judge performance.

“There is no reason to believe the respondents would be over or
under reporting,” Keniry said. “So many campuses were willing to admit
to having no program in place for certain areas. You would think, if
you were going to exaggerate your program, you would say that you have
a lot going on in all areas.”

In addition to collectively judging higher education on its
commitment to sustainability, the report card also specifically
identified more than 240 institutions as having “exemplary programs.”
These are defined by a rigorous set of criteria, and an institution
must meet the minimum criteria in at least one area in order to be
named. For example, an “exemplary program” in operations must receive
more than 80 percent of off-campus energy from a renewable resource.
This type of information is also self-reported by the institutions.

“In the listing of exemplary schools, if a school is not on the list
it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a particular program, it just
might not have been the criteria,” Keniry said, noting that she had
received some complaints from institutions who were upset about not
being on the list. “It was meant to be more celebrative than punitive.
This was just our attempt, based on self-reporting, to recognize these
programs as models. Campuses are proud of programs in certain areas.
Why not highlight those?”

Another report card is that of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. Following the success of the initial NWF report in 2001, SEI published its first report card in 2007
after publishing an aggregate study similar to that of the NWF in 2006.
Mark Orlowski, SEI founder and director, said the first report card was
created in response to the numerous requests he received for
information on how specific institutions fared in the study. This year,
the report card
surveyed the institutions with the largest 200 endowments in the United
States and Canada. The project included independent research to assess
institutions that did not complete surveys. Orlowski argued that, by
using institutions with larger endowments, the study is not skewed
toward wealthy colleges and universities.

“It is not accurate to say an institution is wealthy by looking at
their overall endowment,” Orlowski said. “You have to look at wealthy
institutions by looking at the per-student endowment. We’re using
overall endowments to create a filter. It’s a way to look at schools
that are geographically spread throughout the country. There are public
and private schools, although it is skewed a bit to the privates. There
is also a nice mix of large and small and in rural and urban areas.”

The report card assess administration, climate change and energy,
food and recycling, green building, transportation, endowment
transparency, investment priorities and shareholder engagement.
Regarding its scoring for institutional investments, the report card
states that “points were given to schools that investigated, or
currently invest in, renewable energy funds or similar investment
vehicles.” Institutions are graded in these different sections
individually and then given an overall grade. While the scoring
criteria and calculation of the overall grade are transparent and
explained by the report card, the methodology behind the individual
section grades are kept a secret. Its rating standard is based on
“current best practice,” according to its methodology. The average
grade for all institutions in 2008 was a C+, up from a C last year.
Orlowski says the report’s direct approach to grading and independent
assessment of institutions makes it unique.

“We don’t have a profit motive,” Orlowski said. “We’re not trying to
sell more of our report cards. This is becoming a top-tier issue right
up there with the academic quality of an institution. This has started
thousands of conversation on sustainability at these schools. It’s
opening eyes as to where a school is and where other schools are.
Before this, there wasn’t an approach to compare with peer schools.”

He added that a number of faculty and students at schools earning
poor grades from the SEI report card have contacted him to thank the
organization for bringing awareness to environmental issues at their
institutions. Orlowski said he has seen a number of institutions make
constructive changes after receiving poor grades on the report card.

The University of Southern California, for example, earned a D on the 2007 report card. The university, according to the 2008 report card, established a sustainability task force and began two building projects using Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) certification. As a result, the college earned a C+. SEI also
added another category, in which the university was already excelling,
to the report card, said James Grant, USC spokesman. He pointed out
that although the addition of a “transportation” category clearly
helped the institution’s overall score, “eco-friendly approaches to
transportation as ridesharing, incentives for metro passes for
students, faculty, and staff; and alternative fuel vehicle use have
been in place for several years already.” USC is one of five colleges
on this year’s report card that saw an improvement of at least a grade
and half.

Orlowksi said that about two-thirds of the institutions in the 2008
report card improved their grades from last year. A number of these
grade shifts are the result of institutions providing their investors
with more explicit opportunities to invest in funds that consider
environmental or sustainable factors.

Jumping On The Bandwagon

Given the impact of the report cards by both the NFA and SEI, a
number of other less substantial or duplicative rankings of campus
environmental sustainability debuted this year. The Princeton Review and Kaplan dedicated sections of their 2009 college guide books to recognize “green” institutions. Also, magazines from Forbes to Sierra, the official publication of the Sierra Club, published environmental rankings of colleges and universities. The lists by Forbes and Kaplan, however, made use of SEI data, said Orlowski. Still, others did come up with their own methodology.

In its recent editions of The Best 368 Colleges, The Best Northeast Colleges and The Complete Book of Colleges, the Princeton Review included new “green ratings
for institutions on its review pages so that readers could “find out if
they’re environmentally friendly.” The 534 institutions rated are
judged on a scale from 60 to 99
based on institutional responses on a self-reported survey. The
methodology behind this rating, however, was not made available to the
institutions before the survey was conducted, said David Soto, the
Princeton Review’s college ratings director. He added that the survey
consisted of 30 questions from which the Princeton Review selected the
10 it found to be most important to determine the rating after having
given the survey. This information was self-reported by the
institutions. ecoAmerica, a non-profit environmental marketing agency, helped the Princeton Review determine the criteria for this rating.

“Especially with a rating of this nature, it will play a role in a
student’s college selection,” Soto said, though there is no data to
suggest that prospective students’ college decisions hinge on the issue
of sustainability. “We were considering students. They are reacting to,
want and need this information. Students are savvy shoppers these days.”

Instead of seeking hard data like the NWF and SEI surveys, the
Princeton Review asked colleges questions about their efforts to
provide what it calls “an environmentally beneficial student
experience.” For example, one of the questions among those that counted
asks, “Does the school offer programs including free bus passes,
universal access transit passes, bike sharing/renting, car sharing,
carpool parking, vanpooling or guaranteed rides home to encourage
alternatives to single-passenger automobile use for students?” As a
result, the exact methodology
in calculating the ratings is not transparent to the public. Only the
10 questions used by the Princeton Review to calculate the grades have
been released, and its scale for judging institutional responses has
not been released. The institutions’ responses to these questions are
not made public either. Only a rating between 60 and 99 is provided in
each college’s profile. Those institutions that did not provide answers
to a “sufficient number” of questions were awarded the lowest score of
60 with an asterisk. Though Soto said the Princeton Review did its best
to ensure full reporting from the institutions it surveyed, he noted
that colleges and universities can improve their “green rating” each
year when a new guide is published.

Joining its competitors on bookstore shelves this fall is Kaplan’s College Guide 2009,
which also includes a list of 25 “environmentally responsible
colleges.” Instead of ranking the institutions or assessing them in
some quantifiable way, Kaplan presents a two-page spread detailing the
green aspects of 25 institutions listed in alphabetical order. The list
was not compiled in a scientific manner, said Jason Palmer, Kaplan
contributing editor, adding that it instead focuses on institutions
with a well-documented and long-term commitment to environmental
sustainability. The guide entries detail green attitudes and activities
“inside the classroom,” “around campus” and in “student life.”

“Our book is geared towards students,” Palmer said. “We shy away
from rankings. We were not trying to find the greenest college. Still,
we wouldn’t consider it definitive. Realistically, college number 26
could have just as easily been included as college 25.”

U.S. News and World Report, known for making waves with its annual list of America’s Best Colleges,
does not currently publish “green” rankings of colleges and
universities. It is, however, already making plans to join that crowded
playing field.

“We think measuring and assessing the differences in campus
environmental sustainability is very important and is something that U.S. News wants to begin doing as soon as possible,” Robert Morse, the magazine’s director of data research, stated in an e-mail. “U.S. News is looking for an environmental organization with expertise who would like to work with U.S. News
in order to produce such rankings. We think teaming up with such a
known environmental organization would be the best way to produce the
most credible green rankings rather than trying to create such rankings
on our own.”

The Gold Standard?

Even before this recent influx in the number of campus environmental
rankings and assessments, some college leaders have been calling for an
objective standard by which all colleges and universities could be
judged. In 2006, the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, a network of associations including groups like the Society for College and University Planning, commissioned the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education
(AASHE) to create just such a system. Now, the organization has 90
colleges and universities testing a pilot version of its new Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System
(STARS). Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of AASHE, said the
goal is to have STARS reach the same accepted standard that LEED certification has achieved in evaluating buildings.

“There was a perception that there was no good way to show how
sustainable a campus was and its progress over time,” said
Dautremont-Smith of the time period before STARS was introduced. “There
needed to be a system like that of LEED but for entire campuses. There
have been all these attempts to assess a system, but there is a need
for a standardized method because many haven’t been satisfied with the
rigor of the others.”

Dautremont-Smith identified a number of key distinctions that set
STARS apart from the other assessments on the market. He noted the
system’s complete transparency from start to finish. Unlike some of the
other assessments, colleges and universities know from the beginning
what they must do to garner certain ratings. Additionally, data and
documentation are also publicly available. Dautremont-Smith said this
adds to the credibility of the system, as institutions can understand
what is expected of them in the survey process. For example, each point
awarded by the system has a number of qualifications.
In one of the initial questions, one point is given if “between 0.0 and
0.1 percent of the institution’s courses are sustainability focused”
and six points are given if “4 percent or more of the institution’s
courses are sustainability focused.” Specific percentages between these
two qualifications warrant different point amounts.

The process of STARS evaluation, however, is meant to be lengthy, he
said. Though all data is reported by the institution, the system
maintains an objective scoring rubric with solid requirements for
gaining points. Though the final rating levels have yet to be
determined by AASHE, Dautremont-Smith said it will be a tiered grading
system similar to that of LEED certification, in which buildings can
earn bronze, silver or gold recognition. After being certified, the
STARS rating for a college or university will be valid for three years.

The STARS pilot program ends at the end of the year, at which point
AASHE will synthesize the feedback in order to develop the first
full-fledged version of the assessment system. Dautremont-Smith said
STARS 1.0 will launch in the fall of 2009 and will be the first version
of the assessment to offer official certification to institutions.

Some, however, worry that STARS may be too detailed and complicated
for all colleges that want to participate to be able to do so.
Additional, there will also be a fee for the certification process.
Dautremont-Smith dismissed these concerns by stating that only
institutions who wish to be assessed by the program need apply.

“We’ve been working to make the process as easy as possible without
watering down its comprehensiveness,” Dautremont-Smith said of the
certification. “These things do take some amount of time. We hope other
systems will start to use the data from STARS, as more folks are
starting to use it as the standard. We think it’ll have a pretty big
impact over the long term.”

      

David Moltz

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