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Now, ‘green’ report cards for U.S. colleges

New rating systems help students choose environmentally friendly colleges.

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A small campus focused on human ecology, it was the first to become carbon neutral. The environmental news website Grist ranked it top among 15 green colleges and universities last year.

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Mr. Hales applauds efforts to make transparent what colleges are doing environmentally, including their mistakes, so others can learn from them. But rather than compete, “the key is to do what you can in a way that makes sense for your own institution,” he says.

Colleges do tend to compete for status, says Richard Vedder, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “Being green and sustainable is trendy these days, but it has the potential to raise costs,” he says. Because of tax subsidies and other factors, higher education doesn’t face enough pressure to control costs, he adds.

To proponents, though, it’s worth spending extra to save money in the long run, particularly with energy efficiency. Some aspects of a green campus are funded by grants, donations, or student fundraisers. But experts say there is no centralized tracking on how much schools spend on these initiatives.

“College and university presidents are weighing those cost-benefit analyses very carefully,” says Melanie Corrigan, director of national initiatives for the American Council on Education in Washington. Many colleges see leadership in this area as part of their social mission, she says.

Debates sometimes arise over how green is green enough.

At Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, some students and faculty have been pushing for changes in plans for a $40 million health and science center to improve aspects such as energy efficiency. It was approved before the state started requiring new buildings to meet standards similar to a silver LEED rating by the US Green Building Council.

“They know that this building is going to be obsolete before they even begin building it,” says Matt Loter, president of the college’s chapter of Student World Assembly, a social justice group. Although LEED certification would be ideal, he says, approximating that criteria is what’s most important.

Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the Connecticut Community Colleges Board of Trustees, says the building has many features required by LEED standards, but actual certification at this point would increase prices and cause delays. A checklist she supplied indicates the building would score 21 points, about 5 points shy of a basic LEED certification.

Some schools hold “that the relatively modest extra cost [of certification] is worthwhile; others feel if it’s not directly lowering the carbon footprint of a building, it’s not worthwhile,” Mr. Orlowski  of SEI says. His group notes that 61 percent of the schools with large endowments have at least one LEED-certified building finished or under way.