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.
To determine this ranking, BestColleges combined our scoring system, which measures academic quality, with a school's STARS ratings, thereby identifying the best U.S. colleges and universities that have also distinguished themselves as the nation's greenest schools.
Our goal with this list is to spotlight 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 that benefit the environment — all while remaining committed to academic excellence.
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) does not rank institutions, but recognizes that STARS data may contribute to rankings done by other organizations. AASHE does not endorse our ranking, nor the methodology we used to evaluate and score schools.
Top Greenest Universities
Stanford is a leader in campus environmentalism, earning a platinum STARS rating with a score of 88. 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. As one of the greenest universities, Stanford has reduced its landfill waste by 26%, domestic water use by 45%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 72% since 2000.
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. Participants earn points for completing these tasks, which they can apply toward prizes and cash rewards.
Through the Office of Sustainability, Princeton implements environmentally conscious policies and programs that have earned the university a gold STARS ranking. The office facilitates community-led working groups that help to establish long-term goals and partners with national organizations like the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium and the International Sustainable Campus Network.
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
|New York, NY||
Columbia's sustainability initiatives combine innovative research, administrative leadership, and individual engagement. 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. Volunteers develop action steps for departments and schools, assessing their improvements each semester.
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 and a Ph.D. in sustainable development.
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.
The university recently cemented a power purchase agreement with a project developer to create a solar energy generator that will produce 50,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year to homes across central Pennsylvania.
Through the Eco-Reps program, students can gain leadership skills working paid positions with institutional partners on sustainability projects. 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. All students can apply for grants and fellowships that support research projects and professional development related to environmental sustainability.
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 and environmentally conscious site development. 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 may take the first step toward a more environmentally conscious lifestyle by attending school events and collaborating with campus committees and groups. They can make the switch to sustainable transportation through the Access MIT program, which offers subsidies on commuter rail and parking fees.
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.
Cornell renewed its platinum STARS rating in 2020, making the school one of only nine 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 cabron neutrality in 2007, achieving that goal just eight years later.
Students, staff, and faculty can join green campus initiatives in areas like food, transportation, and human well-being. They can also access learning materials and resources to make their programs and events more environmentally friendly. As one of the greenest universities, Cornell's campus is largely powered by renewable energy from on-site solar farms and a hydro power plant.
In addition to peer-to-peer education and clubs that center on sustainably, students have access to a catalog of over 700 classes focusing on sustainability. Topics include the business of biofuels, integrated cattle nutrition, creating the urban Eden, and the ethics of eating. Cornell also supports student engagement by offering job opportunities and funding research and community projects related to environmentalism.
Located in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin is one of only nine higher education institutions in the U.S. to achieve carbon neutrality. The college also holds a gold STARS rating. Bowdoin oversees innovative single-stream recycling strategies and a myriad of alternative transportation options, including a bike-share program, free campus shuttles, and discounts on local bus fare and ZipCar memberships.
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 2018 and 2019. The institution's strategic sustainability plan offers a framework for future strategies and programs, focusing on key areas like resource conservation, experiential learning, 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. Students can also meet other people who share their passion for environmental activism by joining groups like Fossil Free Northwestern and the university outing club.
Rice maintains a gold STARS rating and has a mission of campus greening, which informs how the school builds and operates its infrastructure. Many of Rice's buildings meet industry standards for ethically sourced construction materials and energy-efficient operations. The university also lowers resource waste by harvesting condensate water to power air conditioning systems and growing 11,000 square feet of green roofs.
Students can learn about climate change and sustainability issues by choosing from more than 280 related classes. Rice also provides green degrees, such as a master of science in environmental analysis and decision-making; this degree may appeal to learners who want to work for governmental and industrial organizations. Furthermore, this environmentally friendly university promotes innovation through the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Baker Institute for Energy Studies.
Washington University in St Louis
|Saint Louis, MO||
Thanks to its comprehensive efforts to tackle the complex issues related to climate change, Washington University has earned a gold STARS rating. The institution's sustainability plan outlines eight focus areas, including energy and emissions, water, waste, transportation, landscape, community, food, and buildings.
Washington University stands out from other environmentally friendly universities in that it focuses on achieving carbon neutrality without buying renewable energy credits. To meet this goal, the university implements solar energy projects and infrastructural updates like power-saving lighting.
Students can participate in the Green Cup — a residential energy-saving competition — and other campus activities related to sustainability. The university provides internships and research opportunities through the Office of Sustainability and the International Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. Students can also earn degrees in urban design, global health and the environment, and landscape architecture.
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley develops environmental strategies and programs through its Office of Sustainability. The university continually rethinks energy consumption, seeking to lower dependency on external providers by building on-site biogas and solar power harvesters. The school hopes to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2025.
Students can learn about climate issues and help Berkeley become a more environmentally friendly university 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
|Ann Arbor, MI||
Planet Blue, U-M's strategic plan for sustainability, emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach that combines knowledge from all academic disciplines and joined efforts from diverse communities. The university holds a gold STARS rating thanks in part to progress related to waste reduction, community engagement, and healthy environments. U-M plans to lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% between 2015 and 2025.
Through the Planet Blue Ambassador program, campus and local community members can receive introductory training that covers core climate issues and available resources. U-M students can strengthen their activism by joining a sustainable food program or the central student government.
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.
University of California-Los Angeles
|Los Angeles, CA||
UCLA fosters a culture of sustainability in which students, staff, and faculty can collaborate with community members to improve environmental health and social and economic equity. The university maintains a gold STARS rating for innovations like the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge — a campus-wide initiative related to urban sustainability that works to transform Los Angeles into the world's greenest metropolis by 2050.
Through Solutions Central, students can find practical ways to live more sustainability, such as by taking advantage of the school's car pool parking discounts. Learners can also connect with peers by joining the Campus Garden Coalition or the Food Law Society.
UCLA operates more than 30 sustainability research centers, including the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability. Students can apply for research positions with the institute to work in teams with stakeholders to tackle pertinent challenges related to biodiversity, food waste behaviors, and environmental resilience.
To earn its gold STARS rating, Wellesley launched a sustainability action plan in 2016 that focuses on principles like disciplined thinking, diversity and inclusion, and leadership. The college also seeks to preserve and regenerate surrounding landscape, aiming to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions by 44% by 2036.
Students can assist with campus environmental action through the Office of Sustainability, which routinely hires interns to run Wellesley's bike-share program and zero-waste events. The office also operates a sustainable living certification program that teaches students to improve daily habits to meet sustainable standards.
Like other environmentally friendly universities, Wellesley uses its campus as a living laboratory. The Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative provides students with research opportunities in landscape stewardship, as well as undergraduate internships and graduate fellowships.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
|Chapel Hill, NC||
Three Zeroes — Carolina's sustainability initiative — focuses on creating integrated strategies to help the university achieve net-zero water consumption and landfill waste. The plan also includes strategies to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions by building on-site solar energy farms and geothermal wells. A 2018 report found that Carolina lowered its emissions by more than 20%, which helped the institution maintain a gold STARS rating.
In addition to making sustainable changes to their daily habits, students can take an APPLES service-learning class that enables them to apply environmental concepts through practical work for the community. Course topics include urban political geography, nonprofit public relations strategies, and supporting the child-bearing family. One of the greenest universities, UNC supports student research with funding and internship opportunities through the Institute for the Environment.
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 nine 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 residence hall 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 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. Furthermore, these schools usually operate energy-efficient dorms boasting ample natural lighting and air quality control systems.
Because their main objective is education, the greenest universities also focus on developing academic programs that center on sustainability, such as environmental science and urban planning. Many schools also integrate aspects of environmentalism into seemingly unrelated fields of study. A popular example is the green MBA, which teaches students to consider social responsibility and sustainable practices when coordinating business operations.