How to Choose a Green College

How to Choose a Green College
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on November 12, 2020

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Today, climate change informs academic research as much as it does campus life. Hypothetical conversations that started in environmental studies programs led to students demanding real change and colleges beginning to clean up their operations and investments. As innovation hubs fill with eco-conscious young people, college campuses have become uniquely well suited to lead sustainability efforts.

“The eco-campus approach represents an opportunity to initiate a cultural paradigm shift, whereby university and colleges become global leaders in sustainability.” Source: — Jennifer Massey, Baylor University Link: More Info

While the U.S. lacks any national initiatives around sustainability, a growing number of colleges have adopted green policies. The best green colleges and universities teach environmental stewardship, use clean energy, buy locally, and work to reduce pollution. In the process, they model eco-friendly alternatives for other schools and organizations that have been slower to act.

Research shows that young people care more about the environment than any other age group. For college students interested in careers in sustainability, attending a green college could be a smart choice for personal, academic, and professional reasons. It means going green while securing access to relevant courses, programs, and career prep for in-demand environmentally conscious jobs.

What Is a Green University?

Green colleges and universities make commitments to the environment and sustainability. Those commitments include reducing campus waste, offering rich curricula on environmental issues, and reimagining their investment portfolios by, for example, choosing to funnel endowment dollars into clean energy instead of fossil fuels.

Some institutions — such as environmentalist forerunner the College of the Atlantic — set ambitious, system-wide goals that show massive change is possible, such as becoming the first carbon-neutral college in the U.S.

According to a recent study, 66% of college applicants and their parents said that information about a college’s commitment to the environment would influence their enrollment decision.

These days, college-bound students want to be able to compare schools based on their commitment to the environment. According to a 2020 survey by The Princeton Review, 66% of college applicants and their parents said that information about an institution's commitment to the environment would influence their enrollment decision.

No two green colleges take the same approach toward resolving sustainability issues on campus. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education uses its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System to track and reward sustainability efforts in higher education.

Greenest Colleges and Universities

  • American University
  • Appalachian State University
  • Chatham University
  • Colby College
  • College of the Atlantic
  • Colorado State University
  • Cornell University
  • Dickinson College
  • Green Mountain College
  • Middlebury College
  • Oberlin College
  • Oregon State University
  • Pitzer College
  • Portland State University
  • Stanford University
  • Sterling College
  • SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of California, Santa Cruz
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Washington
  • Whitman College

Sources: BestColleges, Princeton Review

3 Factors for Determining How Green Your College Is

Metrics for judging the "greenness" of a college include the sustainability of its policies, the industries it invests in, and the environmental education it offers both green majors and the general student body.

Sustainable Practices

Green colleges put environmental principles to work on campus by investing in solar-powered buildings, trayless dining halls, and locally sourced food. They also lead mass transportation initiatives, reward carpooling, and divert waste from incinerators and solid-waste landfills.

Green colleges put environmental principles to work on campus.

Many green colleges spearhead efforts to rely on totally sustainable supply chains. Using local and ethically sourced food in university dining services is part of the Real Food Campus Commitment. So far, 43 colleges have collectively committed to $80 million worth of socially and environmentally responsible food purchases annually.

Such initiatives not only reduce campuses' ecological footprint but also instill environmental values in the student population. Eco-friendly habits are developed each time a student separates their trash into recycling and compost cans.

Sustainable Investments

A college's endowment — i.e., its rainy-day funds accumulated through donations — is invested on the stock market in order to generate income for the school and finance new projects. Of the billions of dollars invested by universities, a large share continues to support the fossil fuel industry, leading students to call on institutions to divest from oil, coal, and gas companies and prioritize socially responsible investing.

Some colleges counter that divesting from successful companies could cut into their returns, forcing them to reduce the services and scholarships that keep their campuses socially responsible. However, new research suggests that sustainable investing strategies can perform as well as or better than traditional approaches.

Sustainability Education

Environmentalist faculty in the 1990s called on higher education to develop "environmental literacy" among students. They could do so by teaching ecological concepts and environmental sensitivity, while developing students' understanding of climate issues.

Green colleges offer green learning opportunities through sustainability-focused programs.

Aside from practical and financial commitments to sustainability, green colleges offer green learning opportunities. Sustainability-focused departments, majors, and minors provide training to students who want to pursue environmental studies while acquainting the larger student population with environmental issues. We have also described the top colleges offering an online sustainability MBA.

Green colleges also center the environment in campus conversations by having an Office of Sustainability, appointing a permanent sustainability officer, and observing National Campus Sustainability Month, which celebrates and encourages sustainability in higher education.

Of all the environmentally responsible steps colleges can take, equipping the next generation of young adults to think and act like sustainability leaders could be the most powerful.

Feature Image: NurPhoto / Contributor / NurPhoto / Getty Images

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