The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has created a transparent rating system to track schools in their sustainability efforts.

Gonzaga University has gained a gold star rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

The rating comes from the AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). STARS is a program that grades colleges and universities on their sustainability performance.

“It encompasses long-term sustainability goals for already high-achieving institutions, as well as entry points of recognition for institutions that are taking first steps towards sustainability,” said Jordan King, STARS program coordinator. 

STARS has become an industry standard due to the transparency of the system to see how schools are rated.

The system has four main categories for its rating: academics, engagement, operations and planning and administration. There is a fifth one in innovation and leadership.

There are then subcategories that have credit amounts that are added up to create an institutions rating. When submitting for a rating, an institution can also decide not to pursue credits. This would likely happen if they don’t apply to what the institution is actively working on.

The STARS has a series of ratings from reporter, bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

The reporter rating is a choice that allows for an institution to not pursue a rating or to not make it public. Bronze is 2 to 44 points, silver is 45 to 64, gold is 65 to 84 and platinum is 85 and up. GU went from a rating of 42.88 in 2017 to a 68.43 in 2020.

“Each seal represents significant sustainability leadership,” King said.

Of the 344 institutions currently with valid ratings to report to the STARS, 134 obtained a gold rating, with only nine achieving a platinum rating.  

The rating comes from the efforts of the Office of Sustainability at GU that started in 2014. It was started to help implement a climate action plan by creating a culture of sustainability in the community and help reduce the carbon footprint of the campus.

GU last received a rating from the STARS in 2017 when they got a bronze rating. The gold rating that they received now shows great improvement from the university.

“The act of moving from bronze to gold is significant because it means we really improved in a number of key areas,” said Jim Simon, Director of Sustainability. 

A big area of improvement for GU this time was having buildings go online that became certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system from the U.S. Green Building Council.

More areas of improvement include their water use credit which went from one of four points to a full four out of four points. Academic courses had a large jump from two points out of 14 to seven out of 14.

This growth came from changes in the methodology. They used institutional research to find courses that were related to sustainability efforts and also worked to fix issues they had in 2017 like the poor rating they got from their buildings.

This newer rating also helps set up GU for continued improvement in their efforts.

“We are going through an exercise to identify what are the big lift credits, so which credits do we still have a lot of work left to do to achieve more points or any points,” Simon said. “Then what are the big wins. What did we do really well in since 2017. We are using that to inform what we do next on campus.”

A big goal that GU has set for the future in their sustainability efforts is to be climate neutral by 2050. Using STARS, they can see which areas need improvement to push for that goal.

The Office of Sustainability has already formed and started applying a plan for this goal. Simon said they want to increase the number of renewables that they buy and have available on campus.

He also said they want to continue making buildings more energy efficient both for buildings that they already own and that they plan on developing.

A STARS rating is valid for three years but can be submitted more frequently if an institution desires.

The membership that GU has with AASHE goes beyond just getting their rating.

“They’re just a really great resource for the entire campus,” Simon said.

The campus membership allows for any student, faculty or staff member with a GU address to access resources from the AASHE website.

Students can also get involved by working with the Office of Sustainability or by participating in clubs that can help GU toward their goals such as becoming climate neutral.

Kaden Brookhouse is a contributor.

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