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Grading Colleges on Their Sustainable Choices

September 24, 2008

Colleges have made significant strides in campus-based sustainability initiatives, with a growing number purchasing local food, adopting green building policies, and committing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Comparatively, however, colleges have lagged in using their shareholder status to push pro-environment corporate policies and in being transparent about their endowment holdings -- although there are notable gains in those areas as well, according to the latest College Sustainability Report Card, released today.

For categories "like shareholder engagement and endowment transparency...[about] half or more of schools are still getting grades of F in those categories. Whereas in green building, only five percent receive a failing grade there," said Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which issues the report card, one of a slew of ratings systems devised in recent years to spotlight colleges' green practices.

Overall, however, it was a good report card, with two-thirds of the colleges measured this year and last bringing up their grade this time around. (Just about five percent fell slightly, mainly because of more rigorous standards and the introduction of a new category measuring student involvement.)

Some of the notable trends among the 191 colleges measured this year and last include: The proportion of colleges committing to reductions in carbon emissions (including through formal initiatives like the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment) grew from 45 to 54 percent, and the proportion of colleges that include hybrid, electric or biodiesel vehicles in their fleets increased from 42 to 74 percent. The proportion of colleges that reported buying at least some local foods grew from 70 to 91 percent, and the proportion with full-time sustainability staff increased from 37 to 66 percent. The percentage of colleges with endowment investments in renewable energy funds increased dramatically, from 19 to 46 percent.

Even in the areas where colleges are, overall, the weakest, there were improvements. On endowment transparency, the percentage of institutions making shareholder voting records available doubled from 15 to 30 percent, and the proportion of colleges with shareholder responsibility committees grew from 13 to 18 percent.

The 300 U.S. and Canadian colleges measured in the third edition of the report card are generally the 300 with the largest endowments, with the exception of a handful of universities included for the sake of geographic diversity (so all 50 states could be represented). While the approach of focusing on the big-endowment institutions has its weaknesses (for instance, no community colleges are included), the methodology allows "us to look at schools that have a lot of influence, that in many ways are the leaders in higher education," said Orlowski.

The report card, which includes college-by-college profiles, relies on independent research (including the mining of Web sites and media coverage, and of data from the U.S. Green Building Council), and three surveys sent to college officials -- on campus sustainability activities, dining services policies (on food and recycling), and endowment practices. Response rates were extremely high: 91, 83, and 71 percent respectively.

Colleges then received grades in each of nine categories – administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement.

Colleges also are given an overall grade – with the average being C+. Fifteen colleges received an A-, the highest grade given this year: Brown, Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford Universities; Carleton, Dartmouth, Dickinson, Middlebury, and Oberlin Colleges; and the Universities of British Columbia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington.

Conversely, four colleges received overall grades of F: Brigham Young, Bryant, and Howard University, and Hillsdale College.

Also being unveiled today is a new Web site for the report card, including a number of functions allowing students to compare green practices across institutions.

 

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