Making the Grade

Higher Education DataIn recent years, higher education institutions have been increasingly communicating their sustainability commitments to the public.  To assist the public in evaluating these claims, a broad range of activists, journalists, businesspeople, higher education professionals, and sustainability experts have developed competing assessments of the sustainability of these institutions.  Which of these assessments should the public use to identify the “greenest” colleges and universities?

This paper addresses this question by surveying the relevant literature, identifying the most feasible and appropriate method for evaluating these assessments, and applying that method in an analysis of nine publicly-available frameworks that have been used to assess and compare HEI sustainability.  To conduct this analysis, the paper uses a framework consisting of criteria developed by the Global Reporting Initiative and the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future.

While finding that in general these assessments are not comprehensive and particularly lack coverage of the social and economic dimensions of sustainability, the paper identifies the Pacific Sustainability Index and Sustainability Tracking and Assessment Rating System (STARS) as the most comprehensive assessments in the sector.  After discussing the implications of the study’s results, the paper explores the strengths and weaknesses of using comprehensiveness as a proxy metric for the validity of sustainability assessments.  The paper concludes that well-known organizations such as the Sierra Club and Princeton Review do not necessarily produce the most valid assessments, and that future studies should use frameworks based on the Global Reporting Initiative to analyze the comprehensiveness of sustainability assessments in sectors beyond higher education.

This research was published in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, and can be accessed here.

Researchers Involved in this Project: Nick Wilder, Graham Bullock