Sustainable Solutions in Higher Education

Sustainable Solutions in Higher Education

College students today were born into a climate crisis that has only worsened over the course of their lives. This new generation has placed a high demand for higher education campuses to be sustainable, equitable, and climate active. Implementing strategies at colleges and other institutions of higher education is crucial in the fight against climate change and covers a wide range of initiatives regarding that minimize environmental impact and maximize resource conservation and social-environmental responsibility. In action, it involves integrating sustainability practices into all aspects of campus from infrastructure and facilities to teaching and research. 

Sustainability extends far beyond recycling, carpooling, and eating locally – it encompasses health and wellbeing, prosperity, and a thriving planet. Sustainability also includes equity, economics, social and technological development, resources, and environments. With more and more students speaking out to support climate justice, demand climate action plans, and push for more green solutions on campus, change is afoot. For example, in Montana, young climate activists sued the state government for violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment due to allowing fossil fuel development. Surprisingly, the court found the state guilty. This has created a new precedent for climate action and law. 

Colleges and universities are often seen as anchor institutions – meaning their social, economic, and political resources extend into the community and contribute to the overall social welfare of the geographic area. Each year colleges and universities spend billions of dollars on food, staffing, building, and maintenance to keep their institutions running. Energy consumption, waste generation, emissions, and water usage all contribute to the environmental footprint that universities may have. With such large operations as well as influence and stake in the community, anchor institutions have an important opportunity to create systemic change and lead initiatives in sustainability and climate action. As community leaders, colleges must engage in both participation and research regarding sustainability. This could include anything from on-campus wastewater treatment facilities, purchasing food from local and humane sources, or school-funded clubs, events, and abroad opportunities focused on sustainability. By utilizing funding and facilities, universities have the means to lead innovative projects that contribute to the community.

Sustainability is a differentiator. As students map out their future and apply to colleges, some consider sustainable practices and initiatives as a criteria. As of 2021, the Princeton Review reported that 75% of its survey respondents said “having information about a college’s commitment to the environment would contribute to their decision about whether to apply to or attend the school.” Academic leaders should not underestimate the next generation when it comes to sustainability. In fact, the opposite is critical, leaders must turn to the incoming students for guidance. College students today are recognizing that none of the other financial or political conversations will matter if the planet becomes uninhabitable. As students become more involved in the policies and practices implemented, it’s important to recognize that the main responsibility should still fall on the institution. While students can and should participate in the process, universities have a moral obligation to serve their community, stakeholders, and students through engaging in sustainable practices. 

A number of different sustainability focused programs, initiatives, and practices are being implemented at colleges and universities across the country, and planet. One of the most popular systems is called STARS (sustainability tracking, assessment, and rating system) and is a program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. STARS gives schools the chance to audit their facilities and programs in terms of sustainability and self-report the results. Divided into categories, the system outlines buildings, climate, academics, spending, campus grounds, and more, in order to provide a sustainability rating. Popular initiatives include implementing solar energy, placing an emphasis on bike friendliness and alternate transportation, and community gardens that target food insecurity. 

As the first college to go carbon-neutral (in 2007), College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine was named as the Greenest College in America by the Princeton Review Green Honor Roll. Behind College of the Atlantic, Colby College, NYU, Bennington College, and Dickinson College were rated in the top five greenest schools of 2024. Colby College in 2nd place is also carbon neutral and has an Environmental Advisory Group to advise the president and community on environmental stewardship including sustainability, conservation, and alternative energy. The Office of Sustainability at NYU has created sustainability strategies that “span every area of university life, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support teaching and research, and provide resources and guidance in establishing a culture of sustainability at NYU.” Additionally, a number of schools invest their endowments sustainably such as Haverford College with $9 million in renewable energy focused funds and Tufts University who has included a University Sustainability Fund in their endowment.

By greening campus operations, integrating sustainability into curriculum and research, and fostering a culture of sustainability, universities can lead the way in addressing environmental challenges and finding innovative solutions. Institutions of higher education have a unique opportunity to be the catalyst of positive change as they shape a sustainable and resilient society for both current students, and generations to come.

Written By: Ellie Plisko, Research Assistant @ PSS