Frustration With Green Rankings Pushes Colleges to Develop Their Own

Ithaca College

Ithaca College, which built its Peggy Ryan Williams Center to meet high standards for sustainability, has opted out of "Sierra" magazine's "Cool Schools" ranking.
April 11, 2010

Colleges have been subjected to all sorts of ratings, rankings, and grades on their green sensibilities in recent years—and not all of them have been welcome. Sustainability directors increasingly find themselves filling out surveys from organizations like the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Sierra magazine, and the Princeton Review Inc., each with its own twist on questions about energy use, mass transit, water conservation, and so on. The data collection is becoming a real burden, they say.

Now, in a recent letter to colleges, the Sustainable Endowments Institute has floated a proposal: How would you like to pay $700 for the pleasure of filling out a survey? That money would help the institute render a grade—it could be an A-minus, or maybe a D-plus—for its highly publicized College Sustainability Report Card.

If you find yourself saying, "No, thanks," you're not alone, as the proposition may come at a bad time. Not only are many colleges watching every penny, but sustainability directors are also suffering from green-ratings fatigue. Just ask administrators at Ithaca College, who recently publicized a letter they wrote to the editors of Sierra magazine, explaining that they would not participate in the "Cool Schools" survey because they found the process too time-consuming, opaque, and of questionable value.

These independent rating systems become more frustrating for administrators when their colleges get dismal scores—and it's not always clear how those scores are calculated. Two years ago, a researcher at Sierra revealed to The Chronicle that the magazine's ratings were assigned somewhat haphazardly, based on the impressions of staff members. While the magazine's editors say they have beefed up their methodology, Marian Brown, special assistant to the provost for sustainability at Ithaca, says she still wonders how those data might be graded or fairly compared against other colleges'. For example, the Sierra survey asks how many students drive to the campus in cars.

"Great question," Ms. Brown says, "but I don't know if you figure out how meaningful that is if you're in an urban setting or a rural campus like ours. How is that percentage useful for anyone to know?"

All of those green ratings look even less enticing now that colleges have come up with their own rating system through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System, better known as Stars, made its official debut three months ago and already has about 130 institutions participating. It was developed by college sustainability experts through an extensive, collaborative process­—in part to allow colleges to compare their progress with that of their peers, but also to take the place of the various sustainability ratings that have popped up in recent years. A Stars evaluation is valid for three years; Stars organizers say that timeline is meant to ease the pressure of data collection.

"From the way I see it, it's time for all of us to move on to Stars," says Gioia Thompson, sustainability director at the University of Vermont. She balks at the idea of paying for the Sustainable Endowments Institute's survey, which can take up to a week of her time to complete. "We may decide to continue to participate in some of these other surveys, but in three years I don't think we are going to be participating in Stars and Sierra and SEI and all these other things."

Controversial Reviews

It's possible that independent rating systems like SEI bring a peculiar public pressure that forces change. The Stars system was conceived as a positive evaluation of college sustainability. Although the colleges will get an honest evaluation of their performance, which will be publicly available, the system won't engage in publicizing dismal scores for colleges that are coming up short, says Meghan Fay Zahniser, who manages the Stars program for AASHE.

That is one role that the Sustainable Endowments Institute does not shy away from. The institute has handed out a good number of C's, D's, and F's on its College Sustainability Report Card. Those scores have sometimes been picked up by newspaper columnists and environmental advocates, who then blast the poor-scoring colleges for slacking.

The institute has won praise for prodding institutions to operate more openly and sustainably, particularly in their endowment investments. But it has also ticked off a lot of college officials, who question the methodology and priorities behind the report card. Some of them privately wonder whether the solicitation for $700 indicates that the institute's support from foundations and private donors has eroded in the economic upheaval. (The letter from the SEI also offered colleges an opportunity to buy customized reports—comparing one institution's standing against another—for around $500. Colleges that contribute $700 will get customized reports free.)

Mark Orlowski, who founded the Sustainable Endowment Institute shortly after graduating from Williams College, in 2004, says that the institute's financial support is "firm."

"We have been in a place where we want to figure out how we move forward and, long term, have a strong organization and a strong report card with diverse funding," he says.

He says that despite the advent of the Stars program, his group's report card still has a significant role in evaluating colleges' green efforts. Having produced report cards for four years, it has a longer track record, he says, and is cheaper; colleges pay $900 to $1,400 to participate in Stars. And he is also trying to align the SEI's questions with those in Stars to reduce the burden of data collection.

Contribution or no, the SEI will continue to evaluate the 300 institutions with the largest endowments, he says—whether they want it or not. Dissatisfied with the grades it had been getting, St. Olaf College refused to fill out the survey last year and asked not to be included in the institute's report card. But Mr. Orlowski says that the report card would be compromised if institutions were allowed to opt out. Without a survey to go on, the institute's researchers combed through St. Olaf's Web site, gathered data about the college from sustainability organizations, and perused news reports to come up with a grade for St. Olaf anyway: a C-plus.

Officials at St. Olaf—a college that has taken on some ambitious sustainability projects—view the institute with skepticism. "Here we are, asking them to opt out, and we can't get them to agree, which we think is arrogant and irresponsible," says Steve Blodgett, the college's director of marketing and communications. Meanwhile, "they are turning around and broadening the pool to make some money by encouraging others to opt in."

Mr. Blodgett is referring to a program announced last year, in which colleges with smaller endowments could pay a $700 "opt-in" fee to be evaluated. Thirty-two colleges either paid that fee or were given grants by SEI to cover it. Mr. Orlowski says that researchers who evaluated the schools were not told which colleges paid to be included, and that the average score among those colleges—a C-plus—was the same as the larger group.

However, regarding this year's proposal for a $700 contribution from everyone, it's hard to say whether many colleges would pay for Mr. Orlowski's service—even those colleges that have willingly contributed in the past.

Luther College, which has a $106-million endowment, paid $700 last year to be included in the report card, and got an A-minus. The $700 contribution "paid dividends" in positive recognition, says Dan Bellrichard, Luther's sustainability coordinator. The college will pony up again this year, but plans beyond that are uncertain, as the college has signed up for Stars. "It would make sense to me that if there is Stars," Mr. Bellrichard says, "all the other [ratings systems] could be somewhat extraneous."