Sustainability is a multidisciplinary field consisting of scientists, engineers, educators, social activists, and business professionals. These specialists use their diverse skills to promote their organization's development in a way that respects the natural environment. As governments around the world enact regulations to try and combat global climate change, companies must follow suit. A sustainable business plan can also speak to consumers, who increasingly demand ethical and environmentally conscious products and services.
Sustainability represents a rapidly growing field with many exciting career opportunities. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of environmental science positions will grow by 11% from 2016-2026. Additionally, urban planners and environmental engineering technicians should both experience 13% growth.
Undergraduate sustainability degrees teach learners the core theories and practical skills needed to attain entry-level positions or pursue graduate academics. This guide can help aspiring students find the bachelor's program that best matches their financial restrictions, personal interests, and professional goals.
Should I Get a Bachelor's in Sustainability?
While students can access some trade-based occupations with two-year degrees and industry certification, most sustainability careers require at least a bachelor's degree. Graduates of four-year programs also tend to enjoy higher pay. According to a 2017 employment projections report by the BLS, bachelor's degree holders benefit from a lower unemployment rate (2.5%) than individuals who only hold an associate degree (3.4%) or high school diploma (4.6%). Furthermore, professionals with a bachelor's degree earn approximately $17,500 more per year than workers with only associate credentials.
Sustainability bachelor's degrees introduce students to the concepts of stewardship, teaching them about responsible resource extraction and usage. Although specific course options vary between programs, students usually cover core topics related to community engagement, sustainability assessment, and environmental policy and law. Students also cultivate practical skills through field training and internships. Many programs also culminate with a capstone project. Beyond academic development, colleges and universities provide students with engagement opportunities through campus groups and school-sponsored events. Learners can also attend conferences to connect with peers, learn from experts, and explore career opportunities. Furthermore, schools often partner with professionals organizations, such as the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi.
Sustainability degree options exist for students of all backgrounds. For example, online bachelor's programs provide flexible scheduling that may suit working professionals, whereas recent high school graduates with fewer commitments may prefer on-campus programs that provide direct access to laboratories and faculty.
What Can I Do With a Bachelor's in Sustainability?
Sustainability degrees can lead to work in engineering, science, and business positions. Graduates often secure roles as environmental, conservation, or atmospheric scientists, and students who pursue engineering training can help design sustainable buildings and infrastructure for future generations. With a degree in sustainable management, graduates may work as compliance officers, human resources administrators, and logisticians. Sustainability professionals often pursue additional education in the form of a green MBA or optional certification. Regardless of their individual roles, sustainability professionals should possess strong research and technical skills. They also need to communicate effectively, translating complex information for team members, stakeholders, policymakers, and the general public.
- Conservation Scientist
These conservationists manage the quality of parks, forests, rivers, and national parks. They work in teams, ensuring land use and recreational activities align with habitat protection and government regulations. Conservation scientists also manage restoration efforts, including controlled burning and planting new trees. To access this career, students need a bachelor's degree with training areas like ecosystem management or geographic information system (GIS) technology.
Median Annual Salary: $60,970*
- Agricultural Engineer
These professionals design and implement systems to conserve power usage, boost mechanical efficiency, and increase production without damaging the environment. They also identify and solve environmental challenges, such as limiting pollution associated with animal waste and industrial run-off. While a bachelor's degree paves the way to entry-level positions, agricultural engineers often go on to earn a master's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $74,780*
- Environmental Scientist
These scientists occupy research, project management, and advisory roles. They may work with private companies, developing technical plans to ensure organizational compliance with laws and regulations, or as active conservationists, leading clean-ups, education initiatives, and policy advancement. In addition to an undergraduate degree, these scientists can earn certification from organizations like the National Registry of Environmental Professionals.
Median Annual Salary: $69,400*
- Urban Planner
Through research and development programs urban planners revitalize metropolitan areas with regards to population growth, socioeconomic disparities, and particular community needs. They gather information based on geographic, census, environmental, and market research data, working with scientists, politicians, and community members to create and implement project proposals. Students interested in this career need to earn a bachelor's degree -- preferably from a school recognized by the Planning Accreditation Board.
Median Annual Salary: $71,490*
- Environmental Engineering Technician
These engineers develop systems to improve public health and organizational sustainability, such as recycling, waste disposal, and pollution control systems. Technicians conduct surveys, collect data, and analyze soil and water samples to locate sources of pollution. Using computer software, they visualize data and maintain project records. Environmental engineering technicians generally possess a bachelor's degree and additional professional training.
Median Annual Salary: $50,230*
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Choose a Bachelor's in Sustainability Program
To obtain an undergraduate sustainability degree, students typically need to earn at least 120 semester credits, although curricula vary by program. For example, students who enroll in an environmental studies track can expect to receive a liberal arts-based education, with classes in sustainable communities, cultural anthropology, and social science research methods. Alternatively, individuals who pursue an environmental science program often take courses in ecology, human impact on ecosystems, and natural resource economics. Learners can also enroll in business and engineering-oriented sustainability tracks. Many programs feature internship experiences, research projects, and/or capstone requirements.
A program's type also affects its cost and graduation timeline. Students can save money by completing general education and prerequisite coursework at local community colleges, which usually offer lower tuition rates than four-year institutions. Furthermore, most community colleges partner with local universities to offer direct transfer pathways, easing the transition to a four-year school. Online sustainability bachelor's degrees represent another accessible option. Distance learners usually take asynchronous classes, which allow them to access learning materials and complete assignments at their convenience. Online students in many programs also benefit from flat tuition prices that disregard residency status. However, students should be aware that some online programs offer fewer course and specialization options. Distance learners also miss out on work-study awards due to the on-campus nature of this work.
Students planning to attend classes on campus should also consider a school's location and the resultant effects on living expenses. Location also dictates employment prospects and professional certification/licensure standards. No matter what program type a student picks, they should confirm their school's accreditation status; otherwise, their degree may mean little to future employers.
Programmatic Accreditation for Bachelor's Programs in Sustainability
To grant valid degrees, colleges and universities must obtain national or regional accreditation. These stamps of approval reflect an institution's adherence to certain academic standards. For-profit and vocational schools tend to earn national accreditation, whereas nonprofit colleges and universities typically apply for regional accreditation from one of six organizations, depending on location. For example, schools in New Jersey earn regional accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Beyond national and regional accreditation, a program can earn specialized recognition for its sustainability degrees. Environmental engineering programs can receive programmatic accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, whereas sustainable business programs receive recognition from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs. Degree tracks can also obtain accreditation from organizations like the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council. Finally, students looking to enroll in an online program can also look for accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
Bachelor's in Sustainability Program Admissions
As part of an application packet, universities typically ask students to fill out an online application and submit standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and high school transcripts. Applicants may also need to furnish a personal statement, explaining how their goals, interests, and general worldview align with a school's mission. Learners who want to pursue an online sustainability degree may also need to demonstrate that they possess the drive and discipline needed to complete self-motivated coursework.
Due to its many moving parts and deadlines, the college admissions process can feel fairly daunting. To make this process more manageable -- and less costly -- students should narrow down their list of prospective schools to around five. These programs should each match a student's academic and career goals.
- Minimum GPA: GPA requirements differ by school, but applicants typically need to hold a GPA of at least 2.0; however, competitive institutions may ask for a minimum 3.0 GPA. Some schools allow students to offset unsatisfactory grades with exceptional test scores.
- Application: Candidates submit an application form, which includes general information such as their legal name, address, academic history, and college goals. Over 700 undergraduate institutions use the Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple programs at the same time.
- Transcripts: Colleges require students to submit their high school transcripts. Transfer and returning students must also submit transcripts related to prior college-level work. Students can request these documents from their school's student services or registrar's office, and they may need to pay a small fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Undergraduate candidates should secure two or three recommendation letters, written by teachers and mentors who can describe a student's academic achievements and personal qualities. Some universities specify who may write these letters.
- Test Scores: While colleges and universities increasingly disregard standardized testing, many schools still ask for ACT or SAT scores. Minimum requirements vary by individual institution. Students should give themselves ample time to prepare for and take these tests, keeping in mind that it takes about a month after the testing day for schools to receive official scores.
- Application Fee: Candidates can expect to pay around $50 for each college application. However, students who demonstrate financial need can contact prospective schools about fee waivers. The Common Application also provides financial assistance.
What Else Can I Expect From a Bachelor's in Sustainability Program?
Colleges and universities usually offer sustainability as a concentration within environmental studies or environmental science programs. However, standalone sustainability programs also exist and come with their own concentrations. For example, students can focus on sustainable urban development, farming, and renewable energy, or they can help companies and organizations enact green business practices by pursuing a sustainability management concentration. Students can also pursue options in education, law, and the natural sciences.
|Urban Sustainability||The influx of people into cities leads to intense resource consumption and scarcity. An urban sustainability concentration trains participants to analyze the physical and sociological dimensions of sustainable communities.||Urban planner, food resource developer, transportation coordinator|
|Sustainability Management||A precursor to the green MBA, this concentration teaches students to assess the systematic roles sustainability plays in company functions. Learners apply research, policy, and measurement tools to help organizations succeed without causing environmental harm. Sustainability management prepares graduates for careers as project leaders, marketers, and communication professionals.||Business operations associate, industrial production coordinator, environmental lawyer|
|Alternative Energy||This interdisciplinary concentration combines environmental public policy with energy system science. Students learn about the history of renewable energy in the U.S. and current government and private sector initiatives. Coursework also includes engineering topics like vector calculus and thermodynamics. Participants prepare to work with policy makers, NGOs, and power companies.||Urban planner, environmental engineering technician, wind energy specialist|
|Environmental Education||Environmental educators work to increase awareness regarding natural resource and climate challenges. This concentration trains students to become skilled communicators and activists who can use media-based advocacy and interpersonal teaching to foster sustainability commitments in others. Students also develop program planning skills, enabling them to lead teams and coordinate volunteers.||Conservation scientist, outreach coordinator, environmental journalist|
|Ecological Systems||This natural science concentration emphasizes the geological and biological structures of living creatures and communities. Through theoretical analysis and practical research training, students learn to examine specific ecologies, including forest, rangeland, and wetland riparian environments. Learners also develop the ability to collect ecological data using GIS and remote-sensing technologies.||Environmental scientist, conservation scientist, agricultural engineer|
Courses in a Bachelor's in Sustainability Program
A school's course offerings depend on the particular nature of its sustainability degree plan. Students enrolled in bachelor of science programs may explore more engineering and science topics, including geology, ecology, conservation biology, and research design. Alternatively, those who pursue bachelor of arts programs generally delve into topics like environmental ethics, community building, and cultural anthropology. The list below details five common courses taken by undergrads in sustainability programs.
- Environmental History
This course provides a historical survey of major interactions between human populations and the natural world. Students learn about social conflicts over natural resources, human modifications to the environment, and the emergence of the 20th century environmentalism movement. This fundamental course provides professionals with a frame of reference for current public attitudes towards sustainability.
- Introduction to GIS
Students develop theoretical knowledge related to GIS and learn to use industry-standard software. They also analyze, manipulate, and store coordinate systems and thematic maps. This course trains students to visualize and present information to influence decision making at the individual and organizational levels. Environmental engineers and scientists often rely on GIS skills.
- Conservation Biology
Emphasizing the importance of biodiversity, this class trains students to apply biological principles and conservation theories to reverse species lost. Through case studies, students learn about the specific threats to biodiversity and approaches to tackling conservation challenges. Conservation biology represents a perfunctory topic for environmental scientists, educators, and community organizers.
- Sustainable Communities
Students learn key ideas and strategies related to environmentally sustainable community development. Through pattern mapping, research analysis, and site visits, students explore community needs and the challenges of environmentally conscious living. Learners also delve into the common misconceptions that lead to unsustainable social practices and how to counteract these fallacies through community education and engagement. Sustainable communities coursework is important for all professionals in this field -- particularly urban planners and alternative energy specialists.
- Natural Resource Management
This course details the interdependence between air, water, and land resources, teaching students about the importance of biodiversity and stewardship. Participants also learn about current environmental policies and challenges related to large-scale resource use and management. Conservationists, environmental scientists, and sustainable business professionals should hold a keen understanding of natural resource management.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Bachelor's in Sustainability?
Conventional undergraduate sustainability degrees require students to complete four years of study and finish at least 120 semester credits. To expedite graduation, students can take full course loads every term, including during optional winter and/or summer terms. Certain schools offer accelerated degree plans or degree-completion programs; these intensive tracks allow especially motivated students and learners with relevant work experience and/or previous college-level credit to earn their bachelor's in less time.
Students may also look into combination programs, which let them earn a bachelor's and a master's in five years. This type of joint degree track can benefit students who hold career goals that necessitate graduate credentials, such as research scientists, postsecondary instructors, and program directors. Students who need to juggle school, work, and family responsibilities can opt to enroll part time. However, part-time enrollment leads to fewer financial aid opportunities and can lead to a higher per-credit tuition rate. Degree candidates at some schools can also hasten program completion by applying for credit based on previous life experiences, such as military training, work experience, and professional training.
How Much Is a Bachelor's in Sustainability?
Earning a bachelor's degree paves the way for many exciting and lucrative careers. However, a college education requires a substantial investment of time and money. For the 2017-2018 academic year, College Board reported that undergraduate students paid an average of almost $10,000 each year in tuition at in-state public schools and more than $25,000 if they enrolled at an out-of-state public institution. Private universities charged even more, with an average yearly tuition of almost $35,000. Additionally, online sustainability bachelor's degrees typically provide relatively low tuition rates. For example, Prescott College in Arizona, the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and Oregon State University each boast relatively low rates and charge online students the same tuition, regardless of their state of residency.
Beyond tuition, students should also budget for everyday living expenses. Those who plan to move for school can calculate and compare these costs through websites like PayScale. Sustainability degree candidates may also want to factor in costs related to attending conferences, engaging in field training, and earning industry certification and licensure.
To help offset expenses, all students should apply for financial aid, including institutional need- and merit-based awards. Many schools host scholarships specifically for online learners and offer significant discounts to active military members and veterans. Eligible students should also see what federal funding they qualify for by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Office of Federal Student Aid also helps students create efficient loan repayment plans. Learners can find external scholarships and grants through local and national associations, such as the Brower Youth Awards funded by the Earth Island Institute. Low-income students can also access support and guidance from organizations like College Possible and the National College Access Network.
Certifications and Licenses a Bachelor's in Sustainability Prepares For
- International Society of Sustainability Professionals Certification
ISSP offers certification at two levels. Its associate credential indicates a candidate's ability to incorporate fundamental sustainability strategies into their work. Alternatively, the professional certificate covers five advanced skill sets and requires candidates to hold at least five years of work experience. To earn certification, individuals must pass an exam. ISSP provides flashcards and study guides on its website.
- Sustainability Management Association Certification
SMA provides certification at the student associate, associate, and professional levels. Associate candidates can sit for the exam without previous work experience, while professional candidates must possess at least two years of experience. The exams cover -- at varying levels of difficulty -- risk reduction, environmental stewardship, organizational value alignment, and business communication. Candidates pay $400 to sit for the exam and must pay $50 each year to renew their certification.
- Project Management Institute - Certified Associate in Project Management
PMI offers an associate certificate for recent college graduates. To earn this credential, individuals must pass a three-hour exam comprised of 150 multiple-choice questions. Questions cover topics like project scope, scheduling, strategic communication, procurement, and stakeholder interests. The exam costs $225 for PMI members and $300 for non-members. Upon accumulating 7,500 project leadership hours, candidates can apply for professional-level certification.
- National Registry of Environmental Professionals - Certified Environmental Scientist
NREP's certified environmental scientist exam covers core principles in zoology, meteorology, biology, earth science, chemistry, physics, and environmental health. To sit for the exam, candidates need at least three years of relevant work experience and a bachelor's degree. The exam costs $300. NREP provides study materials and sample questions on its website.
- Renewable Energy Professional Certification
The Association of Energy Engineers provides certification that indicates a candidate's skills related to the development, application, and assessment of alternative energy programs. To sit for the exam, candidates need a bachelor's degree and at least two years of relevant work experience. The exam consists of 16 subject sections, covering topics like transportation systems, biomass, and geothermal energy.
Resources for Sustainability Students
ACSP connects students, advocates, and practitioners through educational training and collaboration. The association also operates a network of member colleges and universities through its Creation Care Covenant.
SWEP enhances the careers of female sustainability professionals through regional networking events, job postings, and leadership training. The society also provides funding opportunities, including academic scholarships and achievement awards.
Through community education and organization, YPARD promotes a sustainable and affordable food culture for all people. Students can access local meetings, national conferences, and a mentorship program. YPARD also provides job opportunities and project funding.
A nonprofit research organization, WRI works in over 60 countries to collect data and advance environmental policy. Sustainability students can access information and articles related to climate, energy, and food. The institute also provides international volunteer and career opportunities.
FSD helps communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America achieve goals through asset-based development and intercultural volunteerism. Students can take advantage of internships, research opportunities, and group service trips.
Professional Organizations in Sustainability
To cultivate a long and fulfilling career, students, recent graduates, and seasoned professionals should consider joining professional organizations. After paying a membership fee, individuals can gain access to on-demand training, webinars, certification programs, and leadership conferences. Many professional organizations also offer financial assistance.
ISSP supports over 1,000 members by hosting educational programming in the form of live training events, webinars, and self-study courses. Members connect through local chapters and regional learning networks. ISSP also operates certification programs and a career center.
A multidisciplinary organization, NAEP provides ethical and practical standards for sustainability professions. Membership provides access to annual conferences, webinars, and research-based publications. The association also assists members by offering funding, career development opportunities, and job postings.
AAEES promotes leadership and professional excellence in the sustainability field. In addition to an online library, members can access lecture series, award competitions, and job listings. The academy also provides student-specific resources.
Boasting over 4,000 members worldwide, SCB advances sustainability research, policy, and education. Members benefit from local meetings and topical working groups. They can also access education resources, fellowships, and service awards.
A major professional organization for urban planners, APA advocates for its members at all levels of government. The association oversees certification programs, networking events, mentorship programs, and a knowledge center. Members can also access career guidance and scholarship opportunities.