Last week, the Sustainable Endowments Institute officially released the College Sustainability Report Card 2011. This year’s edition of the Report Card contains profiles of 322 schools, as well as an additional 1,100 full survey responses comprising more than 10,000 pages of data on the sustainability practices of our nation’s colleges and universities. The report, which assesses 52 “greenness” indicators (including green building initiatives, recycling programs, endowment investment policies, renewable energy installations, and more) uses an A to F letter-grading system to evaluate performance.

The Green Report Card is one of a growing number of campus sustainability evaluation services. Last month, we here at Campus Ecology hosted a webinar to discuss some of the most popular options, which is available for download on our website. Other evaluation methods include the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS (Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System) Program, the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools Program, and the Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges. The National  Wildlife Association, too, has compiled assessments in 1999 and again in 2008.

While all of these methods, programs and reports have the same goal of assessing schools’ environmental sensibilities, they vary greatly in methodology. STARS, for example, is a voluntary self-assesment tool and allows for peer comparisons. In contrast, the Green Report Card is “graded” by SEI and is so specifically tailored to each school truly equal comparisons are not as easy to make, despite changes to the research process for 2011’s Report Card that called for the collection of more detailed quantitative data by using a web-based survey system. Nor is it possible for the 300 schools with the largest endowments to opt out.  It may come as no surprise then that though SEI’s Report Card has been the nation’s leading campus sustainability rating system for the last several years, it has also encountered a fair amount of criticism.

However, whatever controversy might surround the Green Report Card, it has also been extremely successful at both gathering information and spurring campus change. With data from over 1,400 campuses, this year’s report is the most comprehensive of its kind to date. Grades aside, the 10,000+ pages of information now available on the Green Report Card website provide a valuable picture of the current state of sustainability practices on American college and university campuses.

“The aim,” says Mark Orlowski SEI’s founding executive director, “is to provide accessible information so that schools may learn from each other’s experiences, thereby fostering more effective sustainability policies.”

And while some schools are upset with the low grades they received, the data in this latest edition of the Green Report Card paints a postive picture overall. Between the 2010 Report and the 2011 report, many of the participating schools experienced a surge in green initiatives. Key findings include:

  • More than half of schools earned an overall grade of “B” or better. (56 percent, or 179 schools)
  • 52 schools are recognized as Overall College Sustainability Leaders. (A- overall) 
  • 120 schools attained Campus Sustainability Leader status. (A- for all 6 on-campus categories)can
  • Schools perform best in Administration and Student Involvement.
  • 3 out of 4 of schools have full-time staff dedicated to sustainability.

Holding campuses accountable for their sustainability progress — or lack thereof — is increasingly important as the threats from pollution, climate change, and environmental degradation become ever stronger. It both provides incentive and instruction; schools receive public acclaim or criticism for their efforts, and can find inspiration and motivation in the efforts of other institutions.

Similarly, the various asssesment and evaluation systems can learn and grow as new reports are established and existing reports are compared to, and judged by, one another. As one of the most high-profile tools for providing this on-campus Sustainability accountability, the Sustainable Endowments Institute and the Green Report Card remain benchmarks, and continue to help to drive development in both of these areas.

Published: November 5, 2010