Case Study

Best practices: finding resources to help your school self-assess its sustainability metrics in two steps

Every so often at GreenerU, we work with a college, university, or independent school looking to glean insights about how its sustainability measures compare to peer institutions. Schools are often looking for metrics on how they rank against their peers with respect to carbon neutrality dates, greenhouse gas emissions, food and dining policies, transportation, etc.

An initial hiccup, however, is figuring out how to find which institutions could be considered peers—an important step in the process of creating a peer-to-peer comparison of your institution’s sustainability metrics. Best practices selected from peer institutions are more likely to be directly applicable to your institution.

Step one: identify your peers

Sometimes the information you need is already available and in use at your institution—check with your office of institutional research, if applicable, or your development office. Additionally, your admissions office likely has a list of institutions you compete with for applicants.

But if those options aren’t available to you or aren’t enough, here are a few places we look:

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a pretty nifty “peer network” tool for an almost online-dating-like matchmaking experience of which institutions have identified others as peers and vice versa. The database is based on what other institutions each institution submitted to the US Department of Education as their “comparison group.” Entering “New York University,” for example, yields 33 colleges that identify NYU as its peer; 18 colleges that NYU considers as peers; and five colleges that are a mutual match. Mutually matched institutions are likely to be “near-peers” as opposed to “aspirational peers.”

Sightlines is a company that provides tools for strategic planning, analyzing, and benchmarking that generate an independent, reliable comparison of campus performance in these areas against peer institutions. Climate, location, energy intensity, building stock, and finances are some of the many data Sightlines gathers to help facilities managers make informed decisions about investments in building upgrades. Reach out to your facilities staff to see if you are a Sightlines subscriber.

Carnegie Classifications are maintained by the Center For Postsecondary Research at the Indiana University School of Education. In use since 1970, the classification system is regularly updated using data from the IPEDS database and from National Science Foundation surveys. Carnegie Classifications provide a framework for describing various groupings of schools in the United States. Their framework can be used to identify institutions with similar classifications, e.g., “doctoral universities” that are also “Majority undergraduate” and “Four-year, large, primarily nonresidential” (there are six!).

Second Nature’s reporting platform can help with peer benchmarking. As a first step, similar institutions can be filtered by state, select Carnegie Classifications, total building square footage, and enrollment. Then, once peers are identified using the filter tools, one can readily find information on peer climate action progress to date.

In some cases, NCAA athletic conferences can be a starting point in identifying peer institutions. An added bonus is that your athletic conference competition may be institutions that your community would like to best in sustainability!

Finally, you might have a ready-made peer group at your fingertips. State systems, such as SUNY, California State University, or the California Community Colleges systems all provide instant networks of peers (and collaborators). Institutions founded by religious orders, such as the Jesuits, may have similar values and cultures. There are also unofficial groups of institutions, such as the Little Ivies or the Seven Sisters.

Once you have identified potential peers, you may need to factor in additional criteria to account for common sustainability factors, such as geography or utilities. For example, if you are in a rural location and you’re looking to compare transportation policies, peers in urban areas may not be appropriate choices, as their access to public transportation and expensive parking might skew a data comparison.

Step two: discover best practices

Now that you’ve identified your peer institutions, where should you look to identify best practices? AASHE offers several tools:

AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index highlights the highest scoring institutions in each STARS credit area. Published as a PDF report, it provides a convenient way to browse through top performers.

STARS Data Displays can help to identify institutions with a given score or response. The data can be downloaded as a spreadsheet and filtered to help identify high scoring institutions. Then that institution’s STARS report can be reviewed to learn more about how they scored highly in a given credit.

The STARS Technical Manual is a great source of sustainability standards and guidelines for a broad range of sustainability challenges. For example, it provides a comprehensive list of sustainable food standards that can be used for writing RFPs for your food service provider.

Of course, for specific measures such as best practices in compostable dining to-go ware, for example, or sustainable food sourcing, there’s no substitute for gumshoe detective work on Google. But it’s also important to keep a grain of salt handy, as some claims of “best” when it comes to practices might be in the eye of the beholder.

GreenerU has provided customized research on both discovering the most current best practices in sustainability across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and has performed multiple third-party verifications for STARS reporting. If you’re looking for a help with a deeper dive in best practices identification as part of a progress report or strategic planning process, let’s talk! Contact us at and we’ll be happy to chat.