Do you want to reduce your carbon footprint? Consider earning a degree from one America's greenest, environmentally responsible colleges.
As the effects of climate change become more devastating, institutions across diverse sectors are seeking to implement environmentally sustainable strategies to maintain a positive public image while still growing their enterprises. Colleges and universities are no exception.
In this guide, you can read about some of the best greenest universities in the U.S. according to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). Read on to learn about emerging green initiatives and how students can help their schools be more environmentally friendly.
What Makes a University "Green"?
In general, environmentally friendly universities enact policies and programs that promote a healthy campus lifestyle and reduce dependence on finite natural and human resources.
The STARS system lets schools measure and voluntarily report their performance. Almost 700 colleges and universities currently hold a STARS rating. The STARS system aligns with United Nations sustainable development goals.
Universities earn credits based on six criteria: institutional characteristics, academics, engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. To achieve the highest platinum rating, a school must earn at least 85 points.
How Can Universities Be More Environmentally Friendly?
Universities with a STARS rating must renew their status every three years, which gives them the chance to demonstrate how they have sustained or enhanced their green initiatives. Each of the aforementioned six categories break down into distinct subcategories.
For example, schools can earn higher points for campus engagement by offering environmental education as a professional development option for staff and faculty. Many universities have taken steps toward offsetting their carbon dioxide emissions through more sustainable campus operations and by supporting carbon savings elsewhere in the world.
The higher education nonprofit Second Nature reports that ten U.S. schools have reached total carbon neutrality, with many more institutions projected to achieve this goal within the next decade.
What Can Students Do to Be More Environmentally Friendly in College?
College students are a major driving force behind green campus initiatives and climate action in general. In addition to changing how you eat and spend money, you can help your school become more environmentally friendly by engaging with your community and joining campus groups.
Student government also provides a powerful forum where you can propose community outreach events and shape institutional policy related to areas like recycling, energy consumption, and ethical food sourcing.
Students may also incorporate environmental activism into their education by pursuing a relevant major or minor. Options include sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and marine conservation.
What Does Sustainable Living Look Like in College?
By attending an environmentally friendly university, you may benefit from energy-efficient dorms and healthier dining options that accommodate a variety of food restrictions and preferences. You can also enjoy more transportation options, such as campus shuttles, well-maintained bike paths, and ride-share programs.
Because their main objective is education, the greenest universities also focus on developing academic programs that center on sustainability, such as urban planning and environmental science.
Many schools also integrate aspects of environmentalism into seemingly unrelated fields of study. A popular example is the online green MBA, which teaches students to consider social responsibility and sustainable practices when coordinating business operations.
What Are the Greenest Universities?
Rankings compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team
Is your school on this list? Get the BestColleges ranking seal.
How We Rank Schools
At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.
Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our ranking methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.
Stanford is a leader in campus environmentalism, earning a platinum STARS rating with a score of 88. As one of the greenest universities, Stanford has reduced its landfill waste by 15% and domestic water use by 36% since 2000.
The university offers over 390 sustainability courses, alongside an interdisciplinary master's in sustainable science and practice, which focuses on the interconnected nature of socio-environmental systems.
Stanford's students can help their university become more environmentally friendly through the My Cardinal Green initiative. This program helps students develop an ongoing list of sustainable actions related to areas like food, transportation, shopping, and campus life.
Through the Office of Sustainability, Princeton implements environmentally conscious policies and programs that have earned the university a gold STARS ranking.
Through the office's website, students can learn how to properly recycle, conserve water, and limit their everyday waste production. They can join 15 sustainability student groups and engage in community service provided by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.
The university also offers several sustainability-focused academic opportunities, such as an undergraduate program for engineering and science students. In 2019, Princeton launched its sustainability action plan, which seeks to reduce the institution's net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2046.
Columbia University in the City of New York
In addition to a gold STARS rating, the university's transportation received the Best Overall Program award from the Association of Commuter Transportation in 2019. Through the purchase of energy certificates, the school also boasts entirely renewable electricity usage.
Students can help the institution reach goals like becoming carbon neutral before 2050 by becoming a part of the Sustainable Leaders Network. Columbia students can also engage with a myriad of campus clubs and pursue environmental research with the support of the Center for Sustainable Development.
Like other environmentally friendly universities, Columbia also delivers green degrees, including a bachelor's in environmental biology.
University of Pennsylvania
Penn currently holds a gold STARS rating thanks to its commitment to complete carbon neutrality by 2042. The university prioritizes energy conservation, using sustainable building practices to strengthen ecologically managed green spaces across its campuses.
Through the Eco-Reps program, students can gain leadership skills working paid positions with institutional partners on sustainability projects. All students can apply for grants and fellowships that support research projects and professional development related to environmental sustainability.
As one of the greenest universities, Penn continually improves its academic programs to add relevant coursework like preservation through public policy, sustainable estuaries, and globalization and the city.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Sustainability is a major theme of MIT's 2030 action plan, with a particular emphasis on increasing energy efficiency through integrative power management practices. Additionally, the school maintains solar energy systems across all of its campuses.
In 2016, MIT signed a 25-year power purchase agreement that includes the construction of a 650-acre, 60-megawatt solar farm. Students and faculty can pursue self-motivated research or assist with an institutional project, such as the MIT Energy Initiative, which focuses on environmental solutions related to government and industry.
They can also make the switch to sustainable transportation through the Access MIT program, which offers subsidies on commuter rail and parking fees.
Cornell renewed its platinum STARS rating in 2021, making the school one of only eleven institutions to hold the highest designation awarded through the STARS system. The university's campus is a living laboratory for education, research, and progress in sustainability.
Cornell was the first Ivy to pursue carbon neutrality in 2007, achieving that goal just eight years later. Students, staff, and faculty can join green campus initiatives in areas like food and transportation.
Cornell's campus is largely powered by renewable energy from on-site solar farms and a hydro power plant. In addition to clubs that center on sustainably, students have access to a catalog of over 700 classes focusing on sustainability.
Located in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin is one of only ten higher education institutions in the U.S. to achieve carbon neutrality. The college also holds a gold STARS rating.
To foster a culture of sustainability, Bowdoin encourages students to commit to practical green living actions, such as turning off lights and eschewing single-use containers. Dedicated participants earn gift cards and rewards from local businesses as well as the opportunity to assume leadership positions on campus.
Like other environmentally friendly universities, Bowdoin hosts annual events that highlight climate action like Earthstock — an all-day sustainability fair, barbecue, and music festival.
On top of a gold STARS rating, Northwestern's dedication to environmental stewardship has earned the school two consecutive Energy Star Partner of the Year Awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 and 2021.
The institution's strategic sustainability plan offers a framework for future strategies and programs, focusing on key areas like resource conservation, communications and engagement, and the built environment.
A leader among environmentally friendly universities, Northwestern provides a variety of green transportation options. Students can take advantage of campus shuttles and local buses, as well as a bike-share program and over 800 electric vehicle charging stations.
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley develops environmental strategies and programs through its Office of Sustainability. The university hopes to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2025. These efforts, among many other initiatives, have helped Berkeley earn a platinum STARS rating.
Students can learn about climate issues by assisting campus groups like the Housing and Dining Sustainability Advocates. They may also work with the Zero Waste Coalition, which convinced school leaders to ban all non-essential single-use plastics by 2030.
Berkeley offers more than 600 sustainability-focused classes, making up about 18% of the school's entire course catalog. Courses include climate change mitigation, civil systems and the environment, and land use law.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
U-M holds a gold STARS rating thanks in part to progress related to waste reduction, community engagement, and healthy environments. The university plans to lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% between 2015 and 2025.
Through the Planet Blue program, which seeks to increase energy efficiency, campus and local community members can receive introductory training that covers core climate issues and available resources.
In addition to providing over 700 courses related to sustainability, this environmentally friendly university supports undergraduate research through the Graham Sustainability Scholars Program and promotes graduate projects through the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program.
Feature Image: South_agency / E+ / Getty Images