Monday was the first deadline for institutions to submit reports in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System, also known as Stars. As green-rating systems have proliferated, Stars has emerged as a system created by sustainability directors and other college administrators to provide what they hope is a nuanced and honest assessment of where colleges are doing well and where they need to improve in sustainability efforts.
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which manages the Stars program, got 34 submissions out of 42 reports listed on the site with a due date of yesterday. Some institutions applied for an extension, said Meghan Fay Zahniser, who manages the Stars program for the association. Since the Stars program started, she said, those colleges have seen turnover in their administrations and needed more time to finish the assessment.
“I don’t want to fault anyone for getting an extension,” she said. “This is the first time that institutions are collecting data on this scale.”
Among the institutions that submitted their reports on time, seven had achieved a gold rating in the Stars system: American, Duke, New York, and Oregon State Universities; Middlebury College; and the Universities of Colorado at Boulder and of South Florida. Some of those institutions capitalized on the rating—like American, which trumpeted its score under the headline “The Greenest University in the Nation.”
A much larger group of institutions got silver and bronze ratings—among them, institutions that have gotten a lot of attention for their sustainability efforts, like Furman University, Pacific Lutheran University, and the University of Florida.
Not that this is a contest or anything. Many Stars advocates have been wary of turning the tracking system into just another green rating, which might lead to green-washing. The Stars system, like other sustainability assessments, relies on self-reported data; people have questioned the accuracy of the data in other green-rating systems.
Ms. Zahniser said Stars would have to rely on the public to deal with potential green-washing. Each of the reporting pages on the Stars Web site has a link at the bottom that will lead users to a “Stars Submission Accuracy Inquiry Form,” where people can report errors and exaggerations in the scores.
“It’s possible that people are bulking up numbers to get a higher rating,” Ms. Zahniser said. “Our hope is that because this is available publicly” and that colleges are “looking to engage students, faculty, and staff … that they will hold their institutions accountable.” The Stars reports have to be signed off by each college’s president, a step that Ms. Zahniser believes will lend more weight to the accuracy of the reports.
She said that the initial reports are already leading to some unexpected results. For example, some institutions were uncomfortable with Stars’ inclusion of social factors—points for encouraging diversity, providing transgender housing or child care, or paying living wages. Yet many colleges did far better in the “Planning, Administration, and Engagement” category, which includes those social factors, than they did in the operations category, which covers aspects like energy and buildings and is more commonly associated with sustainability.
Digging through individual reports might lead to some unexpected finds and some head-scratchers. Middlebury College, for example, has made much of its use of renewable energy, including biomass and methane generated from cow manure, yet the college claimed fewer points in the energy category than did Goshen College, which got an overall bronze rating.
Middlebury made up points in its operations under the transportation category, for pushing green efforts in car-pooling and telecommuting, promoting bicycling, and helping to provide local housing. Goshen, meanwhile, claimed no points in the category.
Naturally, Ms. Zahniser said, those scores are likely to change over time, not only as colleges improve their performance but as they gather more information to fill out the report.
The association is already planning a couple of projects based on the submissions so far. In two weeks, people will be able to use a tool on the Stars site that can drill down into the data, comparing scores between institutions. “We hope that that information will be helpful to prospective students and prospective parents, as well as sustainability organizations on campus that are trying to learn,” Ms. Zahniser said.
And in April, the association will release an annual report that will include some analysis of the surprises, the points where colleges excel, and the areas needing improvement, as revealed through the Stars program.
Ms. Zahniser said the report would also outline places where the rating system can improve. “Believe me,” she said, “we already have a list that is pages long.”