Sierra Club Rates “Coolest Schools” in the US

By: Nick Engelfried 

August 26, 2010
This summer the Sierra Club, one of North America’s largest and oldest environmental advocacy groups, released its fourth annual survey to determine which colleges and universities in the US are “coolest.”  Designed to draw attention to the role higher educational institutions can play in combating global warming, the survey rated schools according to ten factors that affect greenhouse gas emissions and overall sustainability.  The top twenty “cool schools” received special recognition from the Sierra Club for their efforts to promote environmentally responsibility and educate a new generation of voters, consumers, and activists. 
In determining just how sustainable a school is, this year’s survey looked at everything from where college cafeterias source their food from to how sustainability fits into the curriculum (or doesn’t).  Yet according to the Sierra Club, the single most important factor in determining a school’s “coolness” was the type of energy from which a campus derives its electricity.  Schools that rely on a relatively clean power grid, like University of Washington, scored high on the list.  Meanwhile schools that get most of their electricity from coal-fired power plants had a significant challenge making it into the top tier.  At the end of the day Green Mountain College took first place on the list, with an overall score of 88.6 out of 100.  Other schools that scored near the top included Evergreen State College, Dickinson College, and Stanford University.
During the survey process, the Sierra Club sent questionnaires to 900 higher educational institutions in the US, containing in-depth questions about those schools’ sustainability efforts.  A total of 163 schools responded to the request for information, and the data they supplied was used to determine each school’s ranking.  Partly because some schools were not reached by the survey effort, and partly because the ranking system was necessarily subjective on some level, the list shouldn’t be regarded as the final word on sustainability in the educational realm.  However it does provide a glimpse into how some of the country’s best-known colleges and universities are doing.
So what inspires a school to go green in the first place?  Sometimes it’s an institution-wide commitment to environmentalism and sustainability.  Sometimes its the result of the good work of a few key faculty members who want to see their workplace lead by example.  Occasionally, as in the case of schools that just happen to be located where the electricity grid is pretty green, luck plays a role in the process. 
But at more and more campuses across the US, one of the most important factors is student activism and student-initiated campaigns to lower a school’s carbon footprint and waste stream.  From large state schools to small private colleges, student environmental groups are organizing to make their place of education cooler.  Students at University of Washington, which ranked in fourth place on the Sierra Club list, helped implement one of the nation’s most successful “green fee” programs, ensuring a certain amount of student tuition goes toward funding sustainable projects.  Meanwhile at schools like Case Western in Ohio, students are organizing to clean up or shut down on-campus power plants.  In other parts of the country, students have organized to ban bottled water on their campuses, or improve the sustainability of campus vehicle fleets.  Many of these efforts have played an important part in shifting educational institutions toward a cooler existence.
If you are in college or know someone who is, check out the complete list of schools rated by the Sierra Club to see if yours made the grade.  If not, there is always next year to do better.  Making schools “cooler” is an ongoing effort, which promises to keep college and university campuses at the forefront of the transition to a cleaner, greener economy. 
Here are the Sierra Club’s top 20 coolest schools:
  1. Green Mountain College
  2. Dickinson College
  3. Evergreen State College
  4. University of Washington
  5. Stanford University
  6. University of California, Irvine
  7. Northland College
  8. Harvard University
  9. College of the Atlantic
  10. Hampshire College
  11. University of California, Santa Cruz
  12. Middlebury College
  13. University of Colorado, Boulder
  14. Warren Wilson College
  15. University of California San Diego
  16. University of California, Davis
  17. University of Vermont
  18. Georgia Tech
  19. University of Pennsylvania
  20. New York University 
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

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