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COOL SCHOOLS | 2010 Methodology

2010 Cool Schools Questionnaire | Scoring Key | All 162 Schools Ranked

Sierra magazine's "Coolest Schools" ranking is open to all four-year undergraduate colleges and universities in the United States. In February 2010, surveys were sent to 900 schools. In addition, an announcement was placed in the February 12, 2010, issue of the Chronicle of Education, encouraging any school that wished to take part to contact Sierra. Schools that requested a survey were provided one and encouraged to submit. One hundred and sixty-two colleges turned in a survey. There was no cost for participation, and no affiliation or relationship between a college and the Sierra Club or its employees, past or present, had any effect on the outcome.

The survey was constructed by Sierra's editorial team, with guidance from the Sierra Club's Conservation Department and outside campus sustainability experts. Questions on the survey focused on environmental goals and achievements. But while goals are important for improvement and received credit, priority was given to achievements.

The survey was made up of 10 categories: Energy Supply, Efficiency, Food, Academics, Purchasing, Transportation, Waste Management, Administration, Financial Investments, and Other Initiatives. Each category was worth 10 points, for a possible grand total of 100; individual questions were worth varying amounts between .5 and 6 points to reflect their relative importance.

Where appropriate, standards like the United States Green Building Council's LEED certification were used. Some schools have chosen not to invest in certifications and have put money that might have otherwise gone to certification into other programs, which is understandable. But from an evaluator's perspective, certifications are useful to measure practices across the diversity of schools represented.

Evaluation was based primarily on schools' surveys, but follow-up inquires were made by phone and e-mail when appropriate, and outside sources were used to verify and complement the survey. To ensure impartiality, evaluators were not responsible for institutions with which they had any affiliation.

Because of differences in schools' ability to use "drop down" answers in their interactive PDFs, some schools provided additional material, some used Web links in their answers to provide more information, and some simply used the space provided. All submitted materials were considered, although no extra credit was given for longer answers, multiple files, or added graphics. At least one school in the top 10 used only the space provided without drop-downs. Final decisions about scoring were based on the rubric.

The rubric, produced in consultation with the Sierra Club's Conservation Department, was created before evaluation began and is publicly available. Graders were primarily interested in the actual practices of schools, not in each school's ability to fill out a survey. If an answer to one question was found somewhere else on the survey, that answer was considered. The surest way to be awarded full credit, however, was to provide a clear answer in the appropriate blank.

The "Coolest Schools" rankings are an index that, while not able to account for every environmental initiative or program, provides information about some of the most important elements of campus sustainability.

A school that scored a zero on the index would be a school that had not begun any environmental initiatives, and a school that scored 100 would be at or near "environmental sustainability." While many colleges and universities are making great progress vis-à-vis sustainability, at present no school is actually sustainable. The top schools on the "Coolest Schools" index scored in the 80s, indicating a great deal of hard work, but also room for improvement.

For each question on the survey, at least one school received zero points, and at least one school received full credit, demonstrating both the challenge that was set for schools and that these are realistic goals that institutions can reach if they choose to. Some schools excelled at specific elements of the survey, while the top schools were consistent across the categories.

There are more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, meaning that the schools on the "Coolest Schools" index are in the top 10 percent when it comes to the environment. Students, faculty, sustainability staff, and administrators who have taken steps to make their campuses more environmentally friendly would be justified in feeling proud about this accomplishment. Yet each school also has the opportunity to build on their successes in the coming year. For many schools, the most important next step is purchasing cleaner sources of energy.



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