The Goldberg Variations: How Green Are the Ivies?

ColumnAs the saying goes, “Girls go to college to get more knowledge,” but do they care if their schools are eco-friendly?

My poor, misguided parents somehow failed to realize that getting me into a decent college was supposed to be their mission in life. In fact, they had practically no involvement at all in my college search, a process which was, by today’s standards, incredibly short and sweet. As a high school senior, I cut school with three friends and visited two colleges in one day. I chose those schools based largely on the fact they didn’t require application essays, and of my two choices, I selected the one that had the most promising male-to-female ratio. I’m pretty sure I spent more time selecting a prom dress than picking my college.

To say that things are different for kids today is a gross understatement. Helicopter parents (like me), now take a scorched earth approach to college applications, and we have all become wily experts in the art of marketing our children to institutions of higher learning. Parents now spend the better part of high school shepherding their offspring through a grueling application process that requires total commitment, massive amounts of time and energy, and a small army of paid professionals (tutors, essay consultants and private college advisors). I have spent the past two years schlepping my daughter to far-flung campuses where we have grinned like obsequious idiots at the perky tour guides who showed us around (A word to the wise: don’t waste your time trying to impress, or bribe, these young tour guides, since they have no say in the admissions process).

I have spent untold hours harassing my child until she fine-tuned her applications, studied for the SATs, and cranked out the gazillionth draft of her personal essay.  And she was on board for all of it, an equal partner in the madness, as she immersed herself in the process of becoming an informed consumer of U.S. universities. My daughter has combed the internet and college catalogs to create stacks of Excel spread sheets, meticulously categorizing schools according to size, location, fraternity life and academics.  But for all her research, my daughter had absolutely no idea where her college choices stood in terms of being green.

This is kind of surprising, given that college guidebooks have started aggressively ranking schools on their environmental profiles, rating them on their use of solar energy panels and the number of recycling bins scattered throughout the campus. Those college guidebooks are my daughter’s bibles, and from them she has learned and retained the tiniest and most obscure details about each school she’s applied to: she can tell you the exact number of undergraduates, the percentage of students who live off campus, and whether or not the school accepts transfer credits. She can describe each school’s personality, recite its mission statement almost verbatim, and tell you if it attracts hipsters, stoners, or meatheads. But when I asked her if she knew the schools’ green ratings, she was stumped, and extremely surprised to learn that she had missed an entire category of college information. Her friends, we would come to learn, were equally ignorant that data on sustainability was readily available in college guide books.

These are not kids who are indifferent to the environment. On the contrary, my daughter is the vice president of her school’s environmental awareness club, and her two best friends are co-presidents. My daughter and her friends recycle religiously and care passionately about global warming.  But there is simply no room in their jam-packed little heads to hold even one more fact about the colleges they are considering. With the economy in a shambles, these kids feel that their future success and happiness depends on being admitted to a “top” college, so they just can’t afford to worry about a school’s commitment to sustainable food sources and low-flush toilets.

Today’s high school seniors crave acceptance to colleges with big names and big endowments, schools that will impress future employers, schools that will give them a high-status decal to slap on their car’s rear window. Ironically, many of those decals will end up on the back of a Toyota Prius, because these kids  genuinely care if their car is environmentally friendly – they just don’t seem to care if their school is.