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Going Green at College: Sierra Club Ranks America’s Greenest Campuses

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For the fourth year in a row, the Sierra Club has ranked the Coolest Schools in America. One hundred colleges and universities are spotlighted in the list, which ranks educational institutions on their “eco-friendliness.” Results were published this month in Sierra magazine.

Ranking Eco-Friendliness Because of College Rivalry

The Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States, ranks the nation’s Coolest Schools in hopes of raising awareness of the sustainability efforts at colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes. “Intercollegiate rivalry is a long and hallowed tradition,” were the words that the Sierra Club used on their website to describe the reasoning behind the annual project.

The Sierra Club sent out 11-page questionnaires to 900 schools across the country and a disappointing 162 colleges and universities returned completed surveys. Fortunately, nearly all replies were extremely thorough. David Prytherch, the sustainability coordinator at Miami University in Ohio, wrote that “It helps encourage continued innovation, knowing that others are watching.”

Changes in the 2010 Coolest Schools List

This year’s ranking system placed more importance on the source of each school’s energy supply than in years past. Energy supply carried the most significance, but nine other categories were also factored when measuring each school’s commitment to sustainability: efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments, as well as a section titled “other initiatives.”

Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont earned top honors as this year’s greenest school after ranking 35th last year. The University of Colorado at Boulder was number one on last year’s list yet fell to 13th place this year. All in all, the top 20 colleges and universities included nine newcomers.

The Sierra Club claims that the list was drastically different this year due to placing more weight on energy sources, which was decided after consulting with Sierra Club conservation experts, but the Chronicle of Higher Education feels that the answer won’t satisfy critics of green ratings systems.

Green Rating and Ranking Systems are Flawed

The rating and ranking of colleges’ sustainability efforts is frustrating to sustainability directors. A group comprised of two dozen college and sustainability directors and school officials recently signed a letter asking “green raters” such as the Sierra Club to use rating systems which adhere to eight principles, which include making the rating process open, using uniform measurements in assessing sustainability efforts, and allowing colleges to opt out.

Avital Binshtock, an editor at Sierra magazine who oversees the Cool Schools project, said that “We would like to maintain our own research methodology and investigative methods," yet she also acknowledged that Sierra is not exactly a neutral observer because it is the membership magazine of the Sierra Club. Ms. Binshtock also said that her staff cannot verify the provided information which is used to determine the top 100 schools because the data is self-reported by the colleges.

Advocates of sustainability ranking systems, though, feel that they are a good way for high school students and their parents to gain more information about environmentally-friendly colleges and universities. People are going green, and a lot of them want to attend green colleges.

For Further Reading:

Sierra’s Cool Schools list can be found at the Sierra Club website.

The Princeton Review’s Guide to 286 Green Colleges can be found at the Princeton Review website.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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