Sustainability Ratings Cause Confusion

The Princeton Review caused a stir at the 5Cs last week when it released its new “Guide to 286 Green Colleges,” which includes Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd but excludes Pomona, Scripps, and Pitzer.

The review’s ranking, which was first reported by The Claremont Port Side, was particularly bewildering because it coincided with the release of the fifth annual College Sustainability Report Card, an initiative of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. The 2011 Report Card awarded Pomona an A, while CMC earned a B and Harvey Mudd was given a B+.

The confusion, it turns out, was caused by a simple lack of information, according to Jeanne Krier, a publicist at The Princeton Review.

The first issue of the “Guide to 286 Green Colleges,” which was released in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council in April, was based on information from the 2008-2009 academic year, Krier said. Some schools that were sent sustainability surveys during that period, including Pomona and Pitzer, may not have submitted the necessary information in time to be included in the first issue.

David Soto, College Ratings Director at The Princeton Review, confirmed this information.

Under their system, he said, colleges that fail to submit sufficient information on their sustainability efforts are given a 60 with an asterisk, indicating that information was missing in that school’s evaluation.

Nonetheless, 60* still qualifies as a D-, thereby preventing such schools from being on the green schools list, which has a cutoff somewhere around 85, Soto said.

All 5Cs have since been reevaluated on their sustainability efforts using more up-to-date information, and each has been given a new score. According to Soto, Pitzer has a 98, CMC has an 86, Harvey Mudd has an 80, and Scripps has an 81. Pomona, whose information was only recently received and processed, is still listed as a 60*, but this should be updated by the time the next issue of the Guide and the general Princeton Review ratings are released.

According to Bowen Close, Director of the Sustainability Integration Office at Pomona, part of the reason it took so long to complete the Princeton Review survey was because it was hidden within a broader survey that was sent to the Admissions Office.

“[The sustainability section] is integrated into a survey they send to the Admissions Office, where they get information about a variety of things, but that section is optional,” Close said. “For whatever reason, we had never filled out the survey. We never knew it existed.”

According to Close, surveys like The Princeton Review’s “Guide to 286 Green Colleges,” as well as other ranking systems like the Sustainability Report Card and the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” list, are often subjective, lack transparency, and are based on insufficient information. She also said that some of the surveys fall victim to grade inflation.

“Pomona is definitely a leader in terms of sustainability, but it’s difficult for me to see how we got an A when our energy use didn’t go down—it’s totally grade inflation,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with the media, how the media will talk about it.”

Close said there are people in her field who are working to change this.

“These are systems that were not designed by campuses,” she said. “They were designed by these external services, and a lot of my colleagues are starting saying, ‘We don’t feel this is a good way to do this, why don’t we develop our own rating system?’”

This push for a new process has resulted in the creation of the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS), a project of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Close said this new rating system seeks to more accurately portray the progress of sustainability efforts on college campuses and to help sustainability coordinators like herself learn from their colleagues at other schools.

“It’s much broader and much more expansive,” she said. “They’re not going to rank people or things like that, and it’s a voluntary program.” Some ratings systems, including the Green Report Card, will rate colleges even if they choose not to fill out their survey or cooperate with the assessment organization.

Nate Wilairat, Environmental Affairs Commissioner for ASPC, agreed that the AASHE project is an improvement over other ratings systems.

“The AASHE system is extremely quantitative. It’s a formula,” he said. “The other ones are just [people] sitting around a table and slapping grades on.”

Wilairat said the AASHE system, which is scheduled to be released sometime in early 2011, would also generate a more accurate rating for Pomona’s progress on sustainability.

“On their scale, we’re sort of in the middle, so our grade would probably be something like a C or a B, rather than an A,” he said. “To me that’s a better reflection of where we are in terms of resource use.”

According to Wilairat, one of the college’s main goals is to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. The current goal, set through the President’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability, is a 20 percent reduction from 2007 levels by 2020, he said. At the moment, the college’s greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.

Wilairat also praised the AASHE system for its more comprehensive definition of sustainability. According to its website, “AASHE defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations.”

“There’s this notion of equity—intergenerational equity,” Wilairat said. “But a natural extension of that idea is to have intragenerational equity—equity in the present.”

According to Wilairat, STARS awards several credits that look at financial aid, accessibility to low-income students, and programs to support minorities on campus like the AARC and OBSA.

“It’s definitely not just environmental sustainability. It’s community sustainability,” he said.

Wilairat said this is a direction the entire environmental movement is going in, a shift that has largely evolved out of necessity.

“Environmentalism is going to fail if it’s a trade-off between poor people and the animals,” he said. “You can’t make the environment and society in opposition—you have to tie them together. You have to make it a human issue as well.”

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