The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) was established in 2005 to “help coordinate and strengthen campus sustainability efforts at regional and national levels, and to serve as the first North American professional association for those interested in advancing campus sustainability.” Today, the AASHE also recognizes colleges and universities that have achieved the greatest level of success with green initiatives on-campus and within in their surrounding communities. The association gauges these efforts using the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), a voluntary system that allows different colleges and universities to report trends and track their sustainability efforts. Four different STARS ratings ― platinum, gold, silver, and bronze ― may be awarded to various establishments, companies, and organizations across the country.
This list from BestColleges.org names the 50 U.S. colleges and universities that have earned the highest STARS ratings, thereby distinguishing themselves as the nation’s greenest schools. Our goal with this list is to spotlight the schools that have launched the most impactful initiatives to reduce on-campus waste and energy consumption, promote alternative transportation, provide funding to student and faculty-led green proposals, and take other measures to benefit the environment. AASHE does not rank institutions but recognizes that STARS data may contribute to rankings done by other organizations. These rankings, as well as the methodology for evaluating and scoring, are not endorsed by AASHE.
The list of 50 colleges and universities below was generated using the STARS Participants & Reports database. Each of these higher-learning institutions has earned a ‘Gold’ rating from STARS, signifying an overall score of 65 to 84. (At this time, there are not any U.S. schools to have earned the ‘Platinum’ rating). In order to receive a Gold rating, an academic institution must earn points in the following areas:
- Academics: Curriculum and Research
- This area covers courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, ‘sustainability literacy’ among students, incentives for introducing more courses that tackle environmental topics, and the campus’ status as a ‘living laboratory.’
- Engagement: Campus Engagement and Community Engagement
- This area explores ways that students and faculty members seek to educate others, advocate for green causes on-campus and within the local community, and participate in discussions about environmental policies and engagement among different stakeholders.
- Operations: Air & Climate, Buildings, Dining Services, Energy, Grounds, Purchasing, Transportation, Waste, and Water
- This area considers specific projects and retrofits that have been installed on-campus in order to reduce energy consumption and waste. These might include:
- A community garden where students grow produce for dining facilities
- A campuswide light bulb exchange to recycle light bulbs and prevent them from entering landfills.
- A student and faculty bike exchange program
- Solar panels, wind turbines, biomass generators, and other alternative energy sources
- Wastewater treatment systems for buildings and residence halls
- Hybrid vehicles in the campus transportation fleet
- This area considers specific projects and retrofits that have been installed on-campus in order to reduce energy consumption and waste. These might include:
- Planning & Administration: Coordination, Planning & Governance, Diversity & Affordability, Health, Wellbeing & Work, Investment
- This area examines how effectively colleges and universities enable students and faculty members to take part in green initiatives. Points are also awarded in this category to schools that promote diversity, foster a culture of inclusion, and take measures to increase on-campus safety and wellness.
Four additional points (known as ‘Innovation Credits’) may be awarded to schools that introduce green initiatives and programs that are deemed especially creative and resourceful. For more information on the STARS Rating criteria, please check out pages 18-19 of the Stars 2.0 Technical Manual.
How to Interpret the Data
Academic institutions that wish to promote green causes are not hindered by the number of enrolled students. Our list contains schools with more than 40,000 students like New York University, the University of Washington, and Arizona State University, as well as institutions with fewer than 2,500 enrolled students, such as Oberlin College, Pomona College, and Chatham University.
Please note that our list is divided into two sections. Numbers 1-32 represent colleges and universities that have earned a Gold rating and elected to share their final score online. These schools are ranked in descending order by score. The remaining 18 schools have chosen not to share their final score, and are listed alphabetically. For this reason, it’s possible that some of the final 18 schools actually earned a higher score than those in the first group of 32.
Schools with Published Ratings
1. Georgia Institute of Technology – Atlanta, GA
‘Green Buzz’ is the online hub for all of Georgia Tech’s environmentally-friendly initiatives and proposals. The Institute recycles upwards of 600 tons of solid waste per year, promotes independence on fossil fuels through its public transportation system, and has managed to cut water usage by more than 30% ― despite owning a campus that has doubled in size since 2001.
2. Colorado State University – Fort Collins, CO
Colorado State University is the greenest higher-learning institution in the United States. This distinction is not surprising; CSU was the first U.S. school to seek and receive LEED certification, and the first solar-heated and -cooled building was designed and developed at one of the university’s research centers. Scientists at the university also collaborated with NASA to create a cloud-profiling radar system for monitoring climate change, and Envirofit International (a company affiliated with the school) is in the process of developing a clean-burning wood stove that will be promoted in developing countries. All of CSU’s environmental programs and projects can be viewed on the school’s Green Initiatives website.
3. Iowa State University – Ames, IA
Iowa State’s Office of Sustainability launched the ‘Live Green!’ initiative in 2008, and the university has since implemented programs and installed retrofits that reduce on-campus energy and water consumption, cut coal and carbon emissions by 15,000 and 37,000 tons per year (respectively), and introduce hybrid vehicles into the student transportation fleet.
4. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The University of Illinois is home to the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, which plans to award roughly $400,000 in seed funding for student and faculty proposals. The university boasts a robust recycling program that effectively diverts half of all waste produced on-campus from reaching landfills, and the school hopes to lower its energy consumption 40% by 2025.
5. Columbia University – New York, NY
The second Ivy League institution on our list (after Cornell University), Columbia maintains a ‘Green Fund’ that awards as much as $10,000 to student grants proposals. The school has also launched environmental initiatives aimed at reducing on-campus energy consumption, incorporating locally sourced food into dining hall meals, and improving existing buildings in order to meet LEED certification standards.
6. Green Mountain College – Poultney, VT
With barely 700 enrolled students, Green Mountain is the smallest college on our list by a considerable margin. But that hasn’t stopped the Vermont college from making big waves in the green movement; GMC was the first higher-learning institution in the country to become carbon neutral through “campus-wide efficiency, adoption of clean energy, and purchase of local carbon offsets.”
7. Appalachian State University – Boone, NC
The Living Green organization at Appalachian State (headquartered in a LEED-certified building) is geared toward students and faculty members with an interest in promoting green technology and sustainable technology on-campus and within the Boone community. A seminar class titled ‘Contemporary Green Living’ is also offered for freshman students. For various green efforts over the last five years, the university has been recognized by the Appalachian Regional Commission and The Princeton Review’s ‘Guide to Green Colleges.’
8. University of California, Davis
In 2010, UC Davis launched a $280 million ‘zero net energy’ project that aims to produce a completely waste-free campus by 2020. The school’s ‘Green Team’ has also spearheaded initiatives to reduce the campus’ carbon footprint, provide locally sourced food and composting facilities for students, and shift courses to an online, ‘paperless’ format. UC Davis Extension offers two professional concentrations through its Sustainable Studies department: Renewable Energy and Green Building and Sustainable Design.
9. Cornell University – Ithaca, NY
Cornell’s ‘Sustainable Campus’ program is divided into ten focus areas: buildings, climate, energy, food, land, people, purchasing, transportation, waste, and water. The university has boosted its heating and electrical efficiency by 25% in recent years, and the campus is comprised of nine buildings that have been awarded Gold or Platinum LEED status. The school has also launched a handful of initiatives aimed at reducing climate change and educating the public about global warming and its impacts on human life.
10. Duke University – Durham, NC
From a campus farm that provides food for dining halls to an ongoing light bulb exchange program, ‘Sustainable Duke’ is the program behind most of the Durham university’s green efforts. The campus is also equipped with a handful of environmentally friendly retrofits, including an integrated pest management program, water run-off system, and roughly 1,600 recycling bins. Duke’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask recently committed $50,000 in grant funding toward student- and faculty-led projects that will increase the university’s ‘greenness’ in the coming years.
11. University of Washington – Seattle, WA
The University of Washington’s Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship Office has been promoting on- and off-campus projects since its foundation in 2008. Some of UW’s recently launched green initiatives include a paper reduction program aimed at both students and faculty members, the ‘EcoReps’ program to promote peer-to-peer sustainability awareness, and a handful of research projects financed by the Green Seed Fund. Students can learn more about the university’s green programs via the Twitter handle #sustainableuw
12. University of Northern Iowa – Cedar Falls, IA
The UNI Sustainability Council and the UNI Sustainable Action Committee oversee various green initiatives and projects enacted on-campus and within the Cedar Falls community. The university is also home to the cutting-edge National Ag-based Lubricants Center and the main office of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center.
13. American University – Washington, DC
American University has committed to zero waste by 2020, and has implemented solar technology throughout the campus to achieve this coveted status. Many of the university’s buildings are outfitted with an automation system that remotely controls heating, air conditioning, and ventilation, as well as other retrofits like chiller loops, LEED lighting, and electricity sub-meter. American University also provides students with free shuttle bus rides throughout Washington ― an effort by the university to help reduce congestion in the city and promote alternative transportation.
14. Dickinson College – Carlisle, PA
Dickinson earned an A-grade on its College Sustainability Report Card in 2011, and the small Pennsylvania college has built its green reputation even more in the last three years. Dickinson was recently invited to join the Pennsylvania Collegiate Green Sports Consortium (PA CGSC), which seeks to improve sustainability in and introduce green technology to statewide athletic facilities and events. With several LEED-certified buildings on-campus, Dickinson plans to refurbish its athletic training center over the next couple of years.
15. Chatham University – Pittsburgh, PA
This small women’s college allows undergraduate and graduate students to earn degrees in fields like sustainability leadership and food science from the Falk School of Sustainability. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency named Chatham as the leading purchaser of green power in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
16. Oregon State University – Corvallis, OR
Oregon State is currently in the midst of a remodeling project that will improve the sustainability of on-campus buildings and structures. Low VOC adhesives and composite tile will replace the flooring, and all paint products will be required to meet OSHA and ANSI standards. The university also sponsors an annual event known as Campuses Take Charge, during which OSU students visit local community members and attempt to educate them about reducing their energy usage in homes and businesses.
17. University of Minnesota, Morris
The University of Minnesota, Morris has reduced carbon emissions by 40% in the last seven years, thanks in part to a campuswide implementation of alternative energy implements like wind turbines, solar panels, and a biomass generator. The university also recycles roughly 100 tons of plastic, paper, and other solid waste per year.
18. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
In August 2013, the Stevens Point branch of the University of Wisconsin was listed on the Green Honor Roll along with 21 other colleges and universities. The campus is noted not only for its numerous recycling bins and facilities, but also for its promotion of vermicomposting ― composting with worms. The Student Government Association also maintains sustainability committees to explore future projects on-campus and within the Stevens Point community. Recently, five dormitories at the university were retrofitted with solar panels, which today provide hot water for all residents.
19. University of Colorado Boulder
According to Sierra magazine (the official publication of the Sierra Club), UCB placed first and second among the nation’s ‘greenest’ schools in 2009 and 2008, respectively. The university officially reduced its net emissions to zero in 2012, following a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality five years earlier. The student government support smaller projects using the Energy and Climate Revolving Fund (ECRF), a $500,000 endowment created in 2007 to reduce energy usage on-campus.
20. University of Puget Sound – Tacoma, WA
The Green Computing program at UPS strives to improve the sustainability within the university’s technology department through hardware recycling and reduced energy consumption initiatives. Students who enroll at UPS are invited to join the Students for a Sustainable Campus, an organization that meets weekly to discuss environmental issues that affect the campus and surrounding community.
21. Emory University – Atlanta, GA
In addition to several LEED-certified buildings, Emory University also maintains a 700-acre ‘Green Space’ dedicated to supporting more than 175 wildlife species that dwell in woodland and aquatic ecosystems. The university also has a ‘Green Cleaning Policy’ in place that restricts the use of chemical-based soaps, solvents, and other products used to sanitize the campus. In December 2013, Emory took first place in waste reduction at the Keep Georgia Beautiful Awards Program.
22. Portland State University – Portland, OR
Portland State is home to the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, an eco-friendly think tank supported by a 10-year investment from the Miller Foundation. The Institute focuses on three broad areas of environmental reform: urban sustainability, ecosystem services, and social determinants of health. The campus also features several LEED-certified buildings and maintains a smart transportation system for students. Students may earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or professional certificate in fields like environmental sciences or sustainability.
23. Stanford University – Palo Alto, CA
Between 2002 and 2012, the number of Stanford students and faculty members who commuted to work alone dropped from 72% to 47%. Roughly 40% of the food served in the school’s dining halls is organic and/or grown locally, while 62% of solid waste produced by the campus is will never see a landfill. The Stanford Energy Systems Innovation Program aims to reduce carbon emissions by 50% and potable water usage by 18% in the coming years. Web users can learn more about green education and initiatives at the university using the Stanford Environmental Portal.
24. University of California, San Diego
Green initiatives implemented through the Sustain UCSD program include plans for the university to achieve zero waste and become carbon neutral by 2020 and 2025, respectively. Roughly 57% of the students and faculty members who attend UCSD already use alternative transportation to commute to campus, and the campus grounds are home to a dozen LEED certified buildings.
25. Ithaca College – Ithaca, NY
In 2012, Ithaca College was named one of the greenest schools in the country by The Princeton Review. The school abides by a ‘Green Cleaning Commitment’ that restricts the use of chemical sanitation products on-campus, while projects that promote recycling and urge students and faculty members to reduce their energy usage are governed by the Ithaca College Resource and Energy Management Program. Groundskeepers plant more than 28,000 flowers, trees, and bulbs on school property every year.
26. Ball State University – Muncie, IN
In recent years, Ball State has incorporated several hybrid vehicles into its student transportation fleet, installed recycling and composting bins throughout campus grounds, and managed to divert 20% of its solid waste from landfills. The school has also utilized a geothermal heating and cooling system since 2012, and plans to eventually use this system to regulate the temperature in 47 campus buildings; Ball State officials estimate this practice will save the university more than $2 million on an annual basis.
27. University of Iowa – Iowa City, IA
The “Sustainability at Iowa” program coordinates eco-friendly initiatives with Green Teams, student-led groups that reach out to fellow students and faculty members, and facilitate campuswide changes. The school also hosts a two-month-long RecycleMania! event each year, and is currently exploring alternative energy solutions through the University of Iowa Biomass Project.
28. California State University, Monterey Bay
Although it’s the third smallest institution in the 23-member California State University system, the Monterey Bay branch has still managed to distinguish itself as a hub of green activity and advocacy. The campus uses solar panels to obtain energy, students and faculty members have reduced their energy consumption by 20% in recent years, and the school maintains an extensive smart transportation system. CSUMB is also on track to eliminate its cut greenhouse emissions down to zero by 2030.
29. Pacific Lutheran University – Tacoma, WA
PLU is currently vying to earn (at least) LEED Gold Certification for every building on campus, and the school’s Dining & Culinary Services recently adopted a zero-waste policy using the ‘Green Tray Program.’ Students and faculty members who would rather not commute in their personal vehicles can take part in the schoolwide Bike Co-op.
30. St. John’s University – New York, NY
St. John’s maintains a transportation system that shuttles students around the Big Apple free-of-charge; this has effectively decreased on-campus congestion and helped reduce the number of students and faculty members who commute to the school alone. The school aims to reduce greenhouse emissions by 30% between 2007 and 2017, and one-third of the food served in campus dining halls is locally sourced and/or organic.
31. University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
The Oshkosh branch of the University of Wisconsin is home to the Environmental Research Innovation Center (ERIC), where scientists test local water samples, develop biogas and other renewable energy sources, and work with faculty members to expand degree programs in fields like environmental science and natural resource protection. The university also commits to exclusively serving “Organic, Humane, Local & Fair Trade” food and beverages in on-campus dining halls.
32. University of New Hampshire – Durham, NH
University of New Hampshire researchers recently partnered with other colleges and state agencies to help create a comprehensive stormwater management system for coastal watersheds. The school has also made a commitment to refrain from using chemical-based cleaning products on-campus; other retrofits include XLERATOR hand dryers (which use 80% less energy than their more wasteful counterparts and cost 95% less than paper towels) and organic Marmoleum flooring in campus buildings.
33. California State University, Chico
Cal State Chico is one of 23 colleges and universities that participates in PowerSave Green Campus, a program that not only strives to reduce energy consumption and promote green technology on U.S. campuses, but also encourages students to pursue careers in fields like environmental science. The Chico campus was listed on The Princeton Review’s 2014 Green Honor Roll, and the school’s annual This Way to Sustainability event is the largest on-campus eco-advocacy conference in the country facilitated by students.
34. Arizona State University – Tempe, AZ
The ASU Green Labs program aims to reduce energy consumption in scientific laboratories, facilities that have historically used three to eight times as much energy as a typical office building. Most green projects at the university’s three main branches are coordinated through the Global Institute of Sustainability, which is headquartered at the main Tempe campus. All ASU campuses are in the process of achieving carbon neutral and zero waste statuses.
35. Middlebury College – Middlebury, VT
Roughly 32% of the food served in Middlebury College’s on-campus dining facilities is acquired from 50 different local farmers and vendors, and many of the food and beverage products are certified as organic. Since 2005, the Vermont school has also aimed to make athletic activities and events more environmentally friendly; currently, team vehicles are powered by food waste and many of the student athletes utilize reusable cups.
36. University of South Florida – Tampa, FL
USF is home to the Patel College of Global Sustainability, an institute that coordinates green programs on the Tampa campus and promotes various environmental initiatives worldwide. USF paved the way for many U.S. colleges and universities in 1995, when more than 2,000 trees were planted and a free off-campus shuttle transportation system was launched for students. In the past decade, USF has drastically reduced energy consumption on-campus ― and saved more than $10 million ― with the use of Greenlights systems in buildings and classrooms.
37. University of Massachusetts Amherst
UMass Sustainability (headquartered at the Amherst campus) is an environmental sustainability and advocacy program that coordinates projects and programs at all four campuses in the university system. Amherst operates the UMass BikeShare program to promote green transportation on- and off-campus, while the Berkshire Permaculture Garden serves as both an educational site for those who are curious about sustainable agriculture and a food source for the school’s dining facilities.
38. The University of Arizona – Tucson, AZ
First introduced in 2010, the University of Arizona Green Fund allocated roughly $400,000 every year for student- and faculty-led environmental initiatives on the UA campus and within the surrounding community. Recent proposals financed through this fund include a campus ride-sharing program, improvements to the school’s composting system, and a community vegetable and plant garden.
39. New York University – New York, NY
NYU has established a recycling system that effectively diverts more than 30% of the school’s solid waste, and the university recently announced that students and faculty members met a goal of reducing on-campus greenhouse emissions by 30% six years before the deadline. NYU offers Green Grants for sustainability projects on- or off-campus; roughly $480,000 has been awarded to 66 different projects, most of which have been facilitated by student groups or organizations.
40. Northern Arizona University – Flagstaff, AZ
This Flagstaff university recently partnered with NORESCO to create the Green NAU Initiative, which will continually implement new energy conservation measures on-campus and save roughly $1.5 million per year. NAU also hosts monthly ‘Environmental Caucus’ meetings, during which students and teachers can discuss various environmental issues that impact the campus, as well as the local community.
41. University of South Carolina – Columbia, SC
The Sustainable Carolina program promotes various on-campus green initiatives at USC, such as waste reduction among students and faculty members, more locally sourced and/or organic food and beverage products in campus dining facilities, and the dedication of the Green Quad (a residence hall that serves as the main hub for eco-activities at the university).
42. University of California, Santa Barbara
Launched in 2006, The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) levels a $2.60-per-quarter charge against all students; the proceeds are then allocated toward various eco-projects and advocacy programs on-campus and within the Santa Barbara community. The UCSB Coastal Fund also finances projects to preserve and restore local marine habitats and ecosystems.
43. University of California, Irvine
Since 1992, UC Irvine has aimed to exclusively construct on-campus buildings that meet the standards for LEED certification. The school is home to a handful of student-led green organizations, including the Real Food Challenge, Students for Sustainability (S4S), Irvine Students Against Animal Cruelty, and the Sustainable Energy Technology Club (SETC).
44. University of Denver – Denver, CO
The University of Denver’s Center for Sustainability hosts several programs that aim to educate individuals about the importance of environmental advocacy and reduce waste and energy consumption on-campus. The university has also implemented an extensive bike share program, while a free shuttle bus transportation system has been introduced in an effort to reduce the number of students and faculty members who commute alone.
45. Oberlin College – Oberlin, OH
This small Ohio college has emphasized green initiatives for decades. Recent student-led projects include the Light Bulb Brigade, which collected 10,000 used light bulbs over a four-month period and diverted them from landfills; the SEED House, an educational center where students can learn about eco-friendly practices like composting and caulking; and a wastewater management system that recycles roughly 70% of the water used in the college’s environmental studies building.
46. Grand Valley State University – Allendale, MI
Five years ago, GVSU was named Michigan’s greenest higher-learning institution by The Princeton Review. Today, the university’s Sustainable Community Development Initiative oversees green programs and projects on-campus, such as the annual RecycleMania event and weekly waste reduction of up to 10,000 pounds of food and beverage products, as well as outreach efforts within the Allendale community.
47. University of Alaska Fairbanks
- Total enrollment: 10,799 (Fall 2012)
- STARS Score: 65.51
The UAF Office of Sustainability recently erected the “sustainability village,” a residence compound that uses renewable energy, wastewater management, and permaculture, and serves as an environmental education center for other students and faculty members. The university also hosts an extensive bike exchange and maintenance program to encourage alternative transportation among students and faculty members.
48. Haywood Community College – Clyde, NC
The only community college on our list, Haywood earns its spot through a series of green initiatives launched over the last 10 years. These include a Rain Garden designed to function as a rainwater catchment system, implementation of solar panels on one of the campus’ main buildings, and several electric and hybrid vehicles in the student transportation fleet.
49. New Mexico State University – Las Cruces, NM
NMSU is home to two green agriculture facilities: the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde, which supplies produce and other foodstuffs for families throughout New Mexico; and the Chili Pepper Institute, one of the nation’s leading centers for the propagation of capsicum chilis, which are used for a variety of sustainable agricultural projects around the world (such as organic pesticides and animal control).
50. Pomona College – Claremont, CA
Since 2010, Pomona College’s Green Office Program has helped 10 different on-campus buildings reduce energy consumption. The college also maintains a Green Bikes Shop where students can borrow bicycles for free ― and avoid commuting to campus using vehicles that rely on fossil fuels. With an enrollment of 1,607 students, Pomona College is the second smallest school on our list.