The Coolest School in the nation

Vermont's Green Mountain College nabbed the top spot in Sierra magazine's fourth annual Coolest Schools environmental sustainability ranking, while two California schools, Stanford placed fifth and University of California Irvine sixth.

Green Mountain -- a school of about 900 students -- was one my colleague suggested and recommended to his daughter, who ultimately chose the University of Oregon, which didn't crack the top 100.

The University of California Merced placed 39th. Other California schools included UC Santa Cruz at No. 11, UC Davis No. 16, UCLA No. 25, Pomona College No. 31, UC Berkeley No. 32 and UC Santa Barbara 44.

The rankings were based on responses to an 11-page questionnaire and how colleges measured up in terms of commitment to sustainability. Energy supply carried the most significance, followed by efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments and a catchall section titled "other initiatives."

Where appropriate, standards like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification were used, the magazine said.

The Coolest Schools list is the cover story for the September/October issue of Sierra magazine, a publication of the Sierra Club.

"Green Mountain College excels in most categories, and it's the MVP when it comes to creativity. The campus gets power and heat from biomass and biogas (a.k.a. cow power)," the magazine said.

Green Mountain has a new combined heat and power biomass plant and participates in Central Vermont Public Service's Cow Power program, which converts cow manure on Vermont farms to methane gas, the school said in a statement. The new plant will use local wood chips to provide 85 percent of the school's heat and generate 20 percent of its electricity.

"Green Mountain established its environmental liberal arts mission in 1995, so we are an 'early adapter' in responding to the social and environmental challenges of our times," said Green Mountain President Paul J. Fonteyn. "Through our Environmental Liberal Arts program, we've sought to provide an education that emphasizes sustainability across all disciplines. This recognition is a testament to all the hard work of a whole generation of students, faculty and staff."

Avital Binshtock and Kyle Boelte wrote in a post on that the magazine shifted priorities in this year's survey after consulting the Club's conservation experts, "who encouraged us to give more weight to each school's energy supply."

That adjustment meant this year's top 20 includes nine newcomers and elevated Green Mountain, which placed 35th last year. No school scored a perfect 100 score. Green Mountain came closest with 88.6.

"Although we worked hard to apply rigorous, objective standards when evaluating the questionnaires, a certain amount of subjectivity was inevitable, and we hope that readers (and the growing legion of college sustainability officers) will bear that in mind," wrote Binshtock and Boelte. "The point, after all, is to create competition, to generate awareness and to celebrate that so many colleges even have a sustainability officer."

Through this project and several other initiatives, Green Mountain officials said they expect to be the first college in the country to reach carbon neutrality after having reduced carbon emissions by more than half. The college also received a score of 98 out of a perfect 99 in the Princeton Review's annual college "green" rankings and its Students for Academic and Green Engagement, or SAGE, Hall was designated as LEED gold certified building by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Princeton Review gave UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara honor roll status in its green rankings for schools that achieve perfect ratings.