The Great And Green Of College Rankings

By Derek Newton, Contributor
BERKELEY, CA - AUGUST 24: Students walk near the Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, August 24, 2021. Students have returned for in-person learning for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic and classes begin tomorrow. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images) MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Forbes released its list of Top Colleges this week. And while I dislike college rankings in general, I can’t resist scrolling them, seeing what schools are where.

This list from Forbes had few big surprises - five of the top 10 and seven in the first 15 are in the Ivy League.

Still, there were some surprises. As Forbes writers noted, this is the first time their rankings are led by a public college – the University of California at Berkeley. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the University of Florida nudge into the top 25 best schools in the country. That’s one precious little rung above the Ivy League’s Brown University and several notches above better known places such as John’s Hopkins (37), Notre Dame (41) and the University of Virginia (30).

There are many ways to measure colleges and plenty of college lists out there. And, as even the list-makers themselves will concede, where any school falls on anyone’s given list is not the full measure of any school or educational experience.   

And Forbes was not alone this week in ranking colleges. Sierra Magazine, the publication of the preservation-minded Sierra Club, also released a ranked college list. They call their list “Cool Schools” and say the list represents, “North America’s greenest colleges and universities.” It’s the 15th year the Club has put the list out and this year, a record 328 schools submitted information for rankings.

Topping their list of green schools was Arizona State University. The rest of the top 10 are: University of California, Irvine, Thompson Rivers University (Canada), Cornell University, State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Merced, University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire and Colorado State University.

In the top 20 on both the Sierra list and the Forbes list are Cal Berkeley – first in Forbes, sixth in Sierra – as well as Cornell (13th and 4th) and Cal Davis, which was number 20 on both. Forbes has Arizona State, which topped the Sierra list, ranked 121. And the University of Florida, which Forbes pegged as a top 25 national school, Sierra was unimpressed. The Gators are number 235 on the green list.

The California University system fared well across the board in both lists, scoring five of the top 20 spots according to Forbes and also five of the top 20 on Sierra’s scorecard.

This Sierra list, the announcement said, represented a “massive shift” in how schools consider and prioritize environmental action and policy. “Early on, the highest-ranking schools were small ‘hippie’ liberal arts schools. A ‘green’ school meant double-sided printing and Earth Day parties. Now, schools of every size have dedicated sustainability departments and ambitious zero-carbon and zero-waste goals,” according to the magazine.

That’s progress. "When we started Cool Schools 15 years ago, we'd report on feel-good stories about campus gardening clubs and Earth Day parties,” Katie O'Reilly, an editor at Sierra Magazine, told me.

But today, O’Reilly says the schools are more active and aggressive with things such as achieving carbon neutrality, divesting from fossil fuel companies, incorporating environmental studies into general education curricula, and bringing in environmental justice speakers and activists. “And,” she said, “prospective students are taking note by not only factoring in schools' sustainability initiatives, but seeking out those schools that can best prepare them to succeed in our rapidly transitioning and warming world.”

The thing is, much as I personally want to hate college rankings, they matter. The review and rigor that editors at Forbes put into their lists, matters. If you care about green issues at all, the Sierra lists are likely influential. The lists and rankings and assessments matter to observers, alumni and future students and their families.

We can and should debate whether colleges rankings should be influential, as well as consider what an emphasis on list climbing can do to a school. But we can’t say they don’t matter.

Come to think if it, I’ve changed my mind.

College rankings aren’t going away. So, candidly, at this point, I’ll take more ranking lists, not fewer. Let’s have them all. Let’s hear from editors and experts across the waterfront in assessing educational opportunities, returns, quality and policy. No one will suffer for having more information. And so long as ranking readers understand how a list is made and trust who’s making it – why not?  

No one should make significant life choices such as what college to attend based on any one list. But being able to know what informed voices think of a particular school or specific program, that’s helpful. It’s good that we have these two lists this week. Let’s have more.


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