Colleges Graded on Green

The TakeAway: The 2011 College Sustainability Report Card shows surges in energy efficiency and more on campuses, but less progress on endowment sustainability.

Today, the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) released its fifth College Sustainability Report Card, which annually rates and ranks sustainability practices at 332 of the largest US and Canadian academic institutions.  This represents more than $325 billion in endowment assets, or more than 95 percent of all university endowments.  Each school’s profile covers nine sustainability categories involving both campus operations and endowment management.  Key findings include:

  • Fifty-two schools received average grades of A- or more across all categories to qualify as Overall College Sustainability Leaders. More than one-half of schools (56 percent, or 179 schools) earned an overall grade of “B” or better.
  • Campus sustainability initiatives outshine endowment sustainability activity. Strong performance across all six campus categories resulted in a collective total of only 35 “F” grades. In contrast, a widespread lack of endowment sustainability activity resulted in 109 “F” grades in the Shareholder Engagement category and 41 “F” grades in the Endowment Transparency category.
  • Despite poor grades for shareholder engagement and endowment transparency, 49 percent of schools invest in renewable energy funds, with 43 percent intending to do so. In addition, 16 percent invest in community development funds.

“The green groundswell on campus is evident in a wide variety of energy-saving initiatives, such as sourcing food from campus farms and reducing hot water use through trayless dining,” said Mark Orlowski, SEI’s founding executive director.  SEI, which launched in 2005 as a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), pioneered the grading of sustainability performance of higher education institutions.  This year, the Green Report Card introduces Get Answers, “a new tool that will allow people to easily find out whether a school has undertaken a specific program or initiative”.

Over 90 percent of participating schools agreed to make public detailed information about their “inner green dynamics,” resulting in more than 1,100 full survey responses with 10,000+ pages of detailed data and descriptions published on the website.  SEI claims this is “the highest response rate, by far, of any college sustainability ranking or rating”.

SEI says its Green Report Card is the only independent evaluation of sustainability in campus operations and endowment practices, but there are other actors on this stage, including Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” list.  Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some in the college-sustainability community are vocal critics of SEI, along with other groups that evaluate colleges on their green efforts.  “While the Green Report Card may have played a vital role pushing green efforts in its early years, many sustainability directors now see the SEI’s survey as cumbersome, incomplete, inaccurate, and enigmatic,” writes the Chronicle’s Scott Carlson.

Earlier this year, through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), a group of them came up with their own system called STARS (or Sustainability Assessment Tracking and Rating System).  A STARS evaluation lasts for 3 years and enables peer comparisons, as distinct from the SEI annual process.  STARS does not, however, disclose the scores of low performers—something the Sustainability Report Card doesn’t hesitate to do.

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