Preparing for STARS Collaborative Review & Revision: Tips to Improve Report Quality
With the March 3 deadline for the Princeton Review Green Rating and Sierra Cool Schools Ranking approaching, AASHE staff are preparing for an influx of STARS reports in the coming weeks. Since STARS 2.1 was launched last spring, each submission now undergoes a collaborative review and revision process, where staff review one-third of all credits and work with STARS liaisons to address any identified issues prior to report publication. This means that AASHE staff will be very busy reviewing reports, and the average time for the initial staff review may stretch beyond the typical two-week timeframe over the coming weeks. In addition, feedback on resubmitted credits may take a few days instead of the standard 24 hours.
We’ve found that there are a number of common issues identified during the review process that require follow-up, leading to score adjustments and more work for liaisons. This sometimes results in delays in report publication since institutions must re-engage campus units to make these clarifications.
To help expedite the report review process and increase the quality of reports overall, AASHE staff have put together this list of tips that institutions can follow before submitting a STARS report. We encourage STARS liaisons and data entry contacts to review these suggestions and make adjustments prior to report submission.
Support responses - Throughout STARS, institutions are scored based on whether a certain program or initiative meets certain requirements. Follow-up descriptive responses should provide justification for all affirmative responses. For example, under PA 6: Support for Underrepresented Groups, if you respond yes to having recruitment programs to support underrepresented groups in all three categories (students, staff and faculty), the follow-up descriptive response should indicate how each group is covered.
Check for consistency between credits - There are a number of data points captured in the Institutional Characteristics (IC) section of STARS that carry over to other credits. Institutions working in STARS 2.1 can take advantage of a new auto-population feature to copy information from IC into the relevant credits (see “Copy from..." button). If you decide not to copy data and wish to enter a different amount, please provide a rationale for why a discrepancy exists in the credit Notes field (e.g., data is from a different performance year).
The following fields can be entered once and copied elsewhere in STARS version 2.1:
- Number of academic departments - see IC 3, AC 1 and AC 9
- Number of students enrolled for credit - see IC 3, EN 1 and EN 13
- Employee headcount - see IC 3 and EN 7
- Full-time equivalent of employees - see IC 3 and PA 14
- Gross floor area and energy intensive building space - see IC 2, OP 1, OP 3, OP 5 and OP 22
- Weighted campus user (WCU) figures - see IC 3, OP 1, OP 19 and OP 22
- Total energy use - see OP 5 and OP 6
- Total campus area - see IC 2, OP 9
Pressed for time? Focus on credits required by Sierra and Princeton by March 3
To share data with Princeton Review and Sierra, you just need to take a snapshot before March 3, which can be done without submitting a full STARS report. To be eligible for AASHE’s 2017 Sustainable Campus Index, you must submit a complete STARS report by May 31. This means that you can spend the weeks following the March 3 deadline completing additional credits and checking for accuracy before submitting a complete report by May 31!
This list includes the most common issues that AASHE staff come across during the submission review process (not a comprehensive list). These credits are reviewed for every report, and if any of the issues below are found, they must be addressed before the report is published.
AC 1: Academic Courses
- Course inventory criteria - A brief description of the sustainability content in each course must be provided in the course inventory. In addition, the course title, department and level (graduate/undergraduate) should be included.
- Course count consistency - The course inventory must be a complete list rather than a sample. The numbers of courses reported in the data fields should be consistent with the numbers reported in the inventory. Any discrepancies should be identified in the “Notes” field.
- Consistency in department counts - The number of academic departments should be consistent with what is reported in IC 3. If the inconsistency is intentional, please include a brief explanation in the public "Notes" field.
AC 2: Learning Outcomes
- Understanding “Learning Outcomes” - A full list of learning outcomes must be included to earn points for this credit. Program goals or mission/vision/value statements are not sufficient. Learning outcomes are “statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand, and be able to demonstrate after completion of a process of learning. Learning outcomes are distinct from the aims of learning in that they are concerned with the achievements of the learner rather than with the overall intentions of the teacher.” In other words, learning outcomes typically begin with, “Students will…” rather than “The program is designed to…”.
- Graduate programs - This credit includes all levels. If your institution has graduate programs, graduate students must be included in the denominator field.
- Course-specific learning outcomes - Course-specific outcomes should only be included if a particular course is required under one or more degree programs.
AC 11: Open Access to Research
- Formal policy at the institution level - In order to count, a formal open access policy must be in place at the institution level. Draft policies or informal guidelines are not sufficient. Policies established by external entities (e.g., government or nonprofit funders) are not sufficient in the absence of a formal commitment to those policies by the institution. Policies established by system offices that cover an institution are sufficient if they are enforced.
- Mandates, Waivers and Financial support - Open access policies may be mandated, or include a waiver for opting out. Open access policies that are strictly voluntary in nature (opt-in) may only count if there are financial incentives for open access publishing, (e.g., a fund to support faculty with article processing).
EN 1: Student Educators Program and EN 7: Employee Educators Program
- Understanding “Ongoing” and “Peer-to-peer” - Institutions must have an ongoing, peer-to-peer sustainability education program for students (EN 1) and/or employees (EN 7). Peer-to-peer education programs train members of specific social groups or networks to become “experts” in a certain topic. These individuals then become peer educators who share what they have learned with other members of the same group to catalyze change. Periodic outreach campaigns, employee trainings, or committees and planning groups are covered in other credits, and do not count for EN 1/EN 7 unless there is a defined peer-to-peer education focus.
- Headcount consistency - The number of students enrolled for credit (EN 1) and number of employees (EN 7) should be consistent with what is reported in IC 3. If the inconsistency is intentional, include a brief explanation in the public "Notes" field.
OP 1: Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Understanding carbon offsets and RECs - This credit collects information about Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) or Guarantees of Origin (GOs), and carbon offsets separately. Please include this information in the appropriate fields and avoid double-counting. Purchased carbon offsets and RECs/GOs that have not been third-party verified do not count.
- Consistency in weighted campus user counts and gross floor area - Floor area amounts and figures used to calculate weighted campus users (WCUs) should be consistent with what is reported in IC 2 and IC 3. If the inconsistency is intentional, include a brief explanation in the public "Notes" field.
OP 3: Building Operations & Maintenance and OP 4: Building Design & Construction
- LEED O+M versus LEED BD+C Certifications - Under OP 3, the only LEED certification that can be counted for this credit is LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M). OP 4 is where the more common LEED for Building Design + Construction (BD+C) certification may be counted.
- Gross floor area consistency - Floor area amounts should be consistent with what is reported in IC 2 or may vary slightly. If the inconsistency is intentional, include a brief explanation in the public "Notes" field.
- Published standards for uncertified space - Partial points may be earned for published standards and guidelines in various components of building maintenance and construction. General information (e.g., informational webpages) in the absence of enforced standards or guidelines is not sufficient. Be sure to support your responses in the descriptive, URL and upload fields.
OP 7: Food & Beverage Purchasing
- Food inventory criteria - The food inventory must be itemized, and each item in the food & beverage inventory must include 1) Product description; 2) Label, brand or producer; and 3) The category in which the product is being counted (e.g., Third Party Verified, Both Local and Community-based), and/or a brief description of the specific sustainability attribute(s) for which it is being counted.
- Local & community-based products - The “Both Local & Community-Based” category provides a way for small local producers to be recognized in the absence of third party certification. Uncertified products from large producers ($5 million or more in annual sales) don’t count toward scoring if they are not third party certified, but may be included under the optional field for “other sustainability attributes”. See two-page food classification guide for more information.
- Producers vs. distributors - A product must have been produced, processed and distributed locally to count. A product that was not locally grown but sourced through a local distributor would not count.
- Food purchasing timeframe - It is a best practice for institutions to track food and beverage purchases for a 12-month consecutive period. A representative sample may be used instead, if institutions accommodate for seasonal and other variations (i.e., at least one month each during peak harvest and off-season).
PA 2: Sustainability Planning
- Formal plans - This credit is specifically about formal planning documents (i.e., sustainability plans, climate action plans, campus master plans, etc.). Informal or unpublished goals or initiatives should not be included.
- Measurable objectives - Be sure to only include measurable objectives that are outlined in published, formal plans. A general mission or vision statement supporting sustainability is not sufficient. As a best practice, follow the SMART criteria in drafting measurable objectives for plans (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-Related).
PA 3: Participatory Governance
- Elected representatives on institution’s highest governance body - Response for the fields, “ Do the institution’s students/faculty/staff have an elected representative on the institution’s highest governing body?” should only be Yes if representatives are elected by their peers to the highest governing body (usually Board of Governors/Directors/Trustees). If representatives aren’t included on the highest governing body, or are included but are appointed by the Board, indicate No. Partial points are awarded for participation in lower bodies such as student councils and faculty senates.
PA 6: Support for Underrepresented Groups
- Recruitment, mentoring and support - Make sure descriptive responses and uploads back up each affirmative response. If you respond Yes to having programs for students, staff and faculty, the follow-up descriptive responses should indicate how each group is covered.
- Future faculty - This section of the credit is specifically about programs taking steps to help build a more diverse faculty by supporting future faculty members (i.e., students) from underrepresented groups. This must be explicit in the program documentation. Examples of such “pipeline programs” include: Consortium for Faculty Diversity at Liberal Arts Colleges, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, The PhD Project and The CUNY Pipeline Program.
PA 10: Investment Disclosure
- Detailed disclosure - The investment snapshot must include the amount invested in each fund and/or company, rather than an aggregated summary or financial statement.
- Annual disclosure - In order to pursue the credit, institutions must be committed to annually updating the snapshot of holdings. Submitting a one-time snapshot exclusively for STARS is not sufficient.
PA 11: Employee Compensation
- Compensation for lowest paid employee - Under Part 3, institutions must identify the lowest paid, regular (i.e,. permanent) employee (typically a position that does not earn benefits). Do not overlook regular part-time employees that don’t earn benefits.
Our STARS Technical Manual webpage lists detailed criteria for all credits, and the online Reporting Tool includes a Resources tab for each credit that includes tips and best practices. If you are unsure about your responses, please email firstname.lastname@example.org - we are happy to answer your questions!
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