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METHODOLOGY: How we surveyed and scored the schools

Participation in Sierra magazine's Cool Schools ranking is open to all four-year undergraduate colleges and universities in the United States. This year, campus administrators could participate by going to to complete an extensive questionnaire about their school's sustainability practices.

We received 96 complete responses from qualified schools. Once schools submitted their data, an independent researcher scored each school's response and ranked all the participating schools. There was no cost for participation, but schools that did not respond to our survey were not included in the ranking.

No affiliation or relationship between a school and the Sierra Club or its employees, past or present, influenced the ranking.

The survey, officially called the Campus Sustainability Data Collector, is the result of the collaborative efforts of four organizations: the Sierra Club, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI), and the Princeton Review. Its questions center on measurable environmental goals and achievements, with priority given to achievements.

The purpose of this collaboration was to reduce the amount of time campus staffers spend completing separate surveys. Together, the groups sought to streamline the schools' reporting process to more closely resemble the way campuses already collect and report data. Another benefit of this year's collaborative questionnaire was that it allowed for a broader, deeper investigation into a wide variety of environmental efforts while aiming to reduce college administrators' reported "survey fatigue" of years past.

The survey was something of an amalgamation of all four organizations' questionnaires of recent years. And while Sierra's 2012 format was based on AASHE's original survey mechanism, schools did not need to be members of AASHE's Sustainable Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) program to use the collector if they chose to share their data with Sierra.

Evaluation was based primarily on schools' responses to the survey, but when appropriate (and especially in the case of footprint calculations), we made follow-up inquires by phone and e-mail and used publicly available outside sources to verify and complement the survey responses. Final ranking decisions, however, were based on the scoring key.

Sierra's scoring rubric emphasizes the Sierra Club's environmental priorities and rewards schools that do a good job of measuring and mitigating their impact. When it came to survey responses, all submitted materials were considered, though where answers were blank, unclear, or inconsistent, institutions were not awarded full credit.

The resultant Cool Schools ranking is an index that provides fair, comparative information about the most important elements of campus sustainability.

Because this year's survey included a significantly increased number of questions than in years past (due to the aforementioned four-group collaboration), schools had a greater opportunity to draw attention to their positive steps across a broad range of sustainability factors. The survey's increased number of questions also caused a noticeable shift in the schools' ranking order from the 2011 list.

The results suggest that while many universities are making admirable progress, no school has yet attained complete sustainability. The top-rated universities scored in the low 700s (out of a possible 894.5 points), indicating much work completed and also room for improvement.

The United States has more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities, so there are, of course, schools that care about the environment that don't appear on Sierra's list. That said, the magazine's ranking aims to act as a guide for prospective students who seek a way to compare colleges based on their commitment to environmentalism. It also serves to spur competition, create aspirational standards, and publicly reward the institutions that work hard to protect the planet.

* We did receive a response from one nonqualified school, Onandaga Community College, which was disqualified for not being a four-year institution. However, Sierra still appreciates the effort Onandaga took to complete our survey.


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