19 May 2014

Bragging Rights on Sustainability – How Top-Rated Colleges Are Raising the Bar

Written by Jim Pierobon

This year’s Earth Day and college graduation ceremonies set occurring this month and next provide a timely platform to spotlight what colleges and universities in the U.S. are doing to arm this generation’s ability to deal with the environmental challenges they will inherit in an economically sustainable manner.

What follows is an unscientific and admittedly subjective  summary, in alpha order, of the 22 schools that  earned the highest ‘green’ score by Princeton Review, which recently issued its 2014 “Green Honor Roll”along with the 5th annual Guide to Green Colleges.


I’ll bet one or more of the other 310 colleges that scored above a threshold set by Princeton Review  to make the Guide have programs worth bragging about; some of them might even trump what these perennial standouts have going for them. But it’s the system-wide commitment – from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, to degree programs, progress toward carbon neutrality, sustainable campus operations, legitimate and active student groups and recycling programs – that convince me those institutions are walking the walk and talking the talk.

David Soto, Princeton Review’s content director who led outreach to the schools, said more colleges are offering sustainability majors, have greenhouse gas reduction programs underway, are increasing their LEED certified campus facilities and are ramping up student interaction with senior administrators about sustainability. But the percentage of schools offering locally grown and organic foods actually dipped slightly from the previous year.

Just under 500 schools shared data about their progress. They were scored on a scale of 60 to 99. The schools below all scored 99.  About 170 schools did not score high enough to make the green guide.

Your comments are welcome. I’m especially interested in types of potential game-changing initiatives not listed here, along with the school and even the department or student group that created them.

American University, Washington, DC

Is a Charter participant in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS), a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.  AU also is a signatory to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and the Tallories Declaration, the first official statement made by university administrators of a commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education. AU established a green teaching certification program that rewards professors for incorporating sustainability content into the curriculum. Its climate plan targets carbon neutrality by 2020.

California State University-Chico

Students, faculty and administrators must be doing something right for earning an impressive array of awards, including top green college rankings from Kiwi magazine and Grist, along with national honors for sustainability and environment programs from the National Wildlife Federation and The New York Times. It too was a Charter Participant in the STARS system. It is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030. The campus offers more than 200 sustainability-related courses, a new interdisciplinary minor in sustainability and more than 15 sustainability-focused student groups.

College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME

College of the Atlantic became the first college in the U.S. to achieve carbon neutrality in 2007. Note: total enrollment this year is 359 students. Since 2007, it has applied funds designed to further reduce carbon emissions to hands-on, interdisciplinary classes and student-led projects to inspire and educate students to conceive of and implement similar work on larger scales throughout the world. The college has its own organic farm 12 miles from campus, supplying the cafeteria with produce as seasons permit. The college also takes a proactive approach to teaching sustainability in the classroom through its Sustainable Foods Systems Program, which explores how COA’s work in organic agriculture can be applied to larger food system issues. Its Sustainable Business Program which focuses on environmentally and socially focused strategies to encourage positive change.

Columbia University, New York City

Located within walking distance of grassy Central Park, Columbia University’s campus is evolving into one of New York City’s greenest landmarks. It recently launched the NYC Urban Technology Innovation Center to promote green building technologies in the city. An Urban Design Lab on campus is committed to local environmental design and sustainable economic development, combining the resources of the architecture and engineering schools. It recently earned LEED Platinum certification for its 17-acre “Manhattanville” campus plan in West Harlem. Columbia can stake claim to claim to both the first LEED Platinum certification of its kind in New York City and the first for a university plan nationally. Students can choose from 24 degrees in environmental study to complement 33 environmental research centers. Organizations such as the Earth Institute and Columbia EcoReps contribute to the active presence of the sustainability movement in everyday campus life.

Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Students can choose from over 300 courses and 28 majors to study sustainability in every college within the university. It achieved a 25 percent carbon emissions reduction when it stopped burning coal to generate electricity for the campus, taking a big step toward becoming carbon neutral by 2050. More than 63 percent of waste on campus is recycled or composted, including 823 tons of food from the dining halls. The main campus currently has one LEED Platinum and eight LEED Gold buildings, along with a policy for all new major construction to obtain LEED Silver. It aspires to be 30 percent more energy efficient than national standards.

Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA

Half of its energy comes from renewable sources and it has adopted a Climate Action Plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2020. Students and faculty receive hands-on learning experiences in renewable energy technology through Dickinson’s Biodiesel Project. This initiative also provides campus vehicles with an environmentally sustainable alternative to diesel fuel, enabling the school to use a food-service waste product to reduce air-polluting emissions. The 15-member President’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability focuses on how the campus can commit to a more sustainable future by reducing pollution, preserving natural resources, educating the community on environmental issues and developing initiatives to reduce both cost and consumption on campus.

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA

In addition to hosting one of the world’s largest grid-tied rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, a GreenBuzz portal highlights what Georgia Tech students, staff and faculty can do to create a more environmentally friendly campus. Tech’s 1.4 million gallon cistern collects rain and condensation water for flushing and irrigation and is the largest such system on a U.S. campus. Tech has 21 endowed chairs and 30 research centers focusing on sustainability. And of course, it is a Presidents’ Climate Commitment signatory.

Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

True to its name, Green Mountain (total enrollment: 646) became the second climate-neutral campus in the nation and the first to achieve it through a combination of efficiency, large-scale adoption of clean energy and purchase of local carbon offsets. It also offers a renewable energy and ecological design certificate program, a new sustainable agriculture and food production degree, adventure education, natural resources management and a sustainable MBA program. In 2012, the college approved a strategic plan called Sustainability 2020 that challenges it to meet all of its energy needs with 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Note: Colby College in Maine, with slightly more than 1,800 students, and which  did not score the highest rating from Princeton Review, reportedly is the fourth and currently the largest college or university to have achieved carbon neutrality, which it accomplished in 2013.  University of Minnesota at Morris was the third.

Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR

Lewis & Clark requires all new buildings to be LEED Gold certified and all of the school’s electricity is generated by “green power” sources. While the City of Portland’s 2009 Climate Action Plan is seeking a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2018, Lewis & Clark reached a 30 percent reduction three years earlier, in 2006. Students can join a plethora of green groups such as SABER, Student Advocates for Business and Environmental Responsibility. In 2013, it was ranked first in the highly-competitive Northwest Conference in the U.S. EPA’s College and University Green Power Challenge.

Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT

In its push to become carbon neutral by 2016, Middlebury recently completed a $12 million biomass gasification system, which burns renewable wood chips and is helping reduce carbon emissions on campus by 40 percent and oil consumption by 1 million gallons. In 2011, it became a member of the Founding Circle for the “Billion Dollar Green Challenge,” which encourages colleges to invest a $1 billion in self-managed revolving funds that finance energy efficiency improvements. On top of that, the college’s Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest achieved LEED Platinum certification, the seventh such building nationwide.

Pomona College, Claremont, CA

The college’s new Sontag and Pomona residence halls are LEED Platinum. Its Environmental Analysis Program incorporates sustainability across the curriculum by offering 11 concentrations in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.  With a change to self-operated dining, the college was able to increase sustainable food purchases and became the first liberal arts college to receive Marine Stewardship Council certification. Pomona for Environmental Activism and Responsibility (PEAR), the Environmental Quality Committee (EQC), Food Rescue, Green Bikes, the Organic Farm and Clean Sweep/ReCoop are a few of the college’s sustainability-related student organizations.

Portland State University, Portland, OR

A 10-year, $25 million gift from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in 2008 jump-started Portland State’s excellence in community-based learning and sustainability research, teaching, and community engagement in programs across campus. Its College of Liberal Arts & Sciences faculty are leaders in social sustainability research and the Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science is home to globally recognized transportation researchers and a Green Building Research Lab. The College of Urban & Public Affairs continues to push the leading edge of sustainable urban development.

Stanford University, Stanford, CA

As part of its role in the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, Stanford released a comprehensive energy and climate plan that can “reduce the university’s GHG emissions at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and enable an 18 percent savings in potable water consumption.” Its recycling program (recognized by the EPA and a top contender in RecycleMania) diverts 65 percent of its solid waste from landfills. Its Transportation Demand Management program has reduced the percentage of Stanford employees driving alone to campus dropped from “72 to 46 percent” in the last decade.

University of California – Irvine

After signing on to the President’s Climate Commitment, UC Irvine has determined that all new construction on campus must seek LEED Silver certification, at a minimum. Eight buildings on campus have achieved LEED Gold and two have achieved LEED Platinum. The school is capitalizing on Southern California’s sunshine by installing 1.2-megawatt DC solar power system, which is designed to produce more than 24 million kilowatt hours over 20 years, while offsetting 25.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

University of California – Los Angeles

Although UCLA scored the highest possible rating from the Review, I struggled with its summary of its green initiatives to find several that stood out.  If you’re a UCLA student or staffer, please chime in with an update. Students there DO take action on their own sustainable initiatives by raising more than $200,000 annually for a “Green Initiative Fund.” It is home to the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, an innovative intellectual community in Los Angeles focused on environmental research, policy concerns, and outreach and education. Sixty-nine percent of the school’s waste stream is currently diverted from landfills

University of California – Santa Barbara

UCSB established one of the nation’s first environmental studies programs in 1970’ it opened the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management in 1994; and in 2008 it established the Institute for Energy Efficiency, developing innovative technologies addressing energy conservation. UCSB was early signatory to the College & Universities Presidents’  Climate Commitment and is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. It is currently installing a 500-kilowatt photovoltaic array coupled with 12 electric vehicle-charging stations for public use on campus. There are 29 LEED-certified buildings on campus, including the nation’s first double Platinum building.

University of California – Santa Cruz

Its Sustainability Office is building a database of project ideas submitted by students, faculty and staff to improve sustainable practices on campus, and it encourages students to apply for grants to reduce GHG emissions on campus, through the student fee-supported Carbon Fund. The campus gets 16 percent of its energy from renewable sources, boasts a 64 percent waste-diversion rate and is aiming to become zero-waste by 2020. It has scored high enough to be one of the Sierra Club’s Coolest (read greenest) universities.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Despite a home base smack dab in the middle of Midwest coal country, the U of I isn’t flying with blinders on when it comes to sustainability initiatives. It is committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and aims to reduce energy use 20 percent 2015.  It is actively restructuring its energy accounting system and, as an incentive to conserve resources, will charge for units of energy used and offer rewards for energy-use reductions. The university recently opened a $66 million LEED Platinum Business Instruction Facility to help new buildings meet LEED Gold certification standards or better. U of I now boasts a 55 percent waste-diversion rate. The Student Sustainability Committee has created two new funds: Clean Energy Technology and Sustainable Campus Environment.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Twenty-five of nearly 90 undergraduate majors are sustainability related, while more than 250 courses include some sustainability emphasis. Three new graduate programs encourage advanced study in sustainability, including an accelerated Master’s in Sustainability Science. Student involvement in green initiatives pervades the campus culture. Sustainability Fellows oversee sustainability activities ranging from Green Games and Sustainable Move-out to the Green Office Program. Students also run a new U.S. Green Building Council student chapter, and serve on the Chancellor’s Sustainability Committee. Comprehensive recycling and composting program diverts 56 percent of waste from landfills. Every new building since 2011 has been certified LEED Gold, with 13 LEED-registered projects under way.

University of South Florida, Tampa

The Student Government Association just approved a $1-per-credit-hour green fee to be used for the purchase of renewable energy. Each year, USF hosts the Campus and Community Sustainability Conference, open to participants interested in sharing best practices for Florida’s sustainable future. USF also recently put on a “Going Green Tampa Bay EXPO,” which showcased sustainable products and services available in the area to 3,000 visitors. It has incorporated sustainability into its strategic plan and established a Sustainability Initiative on campus with 14 subcommittees and is home to 18 environmental student groups.  It is also dedicated to ensuring that all new buildings achieve LEED Silver or better (there are seven buildings in the design phase or already under construction that will pursue LEED certification in the upcoming years). Undergraduates are taught sustainability as part of the school’s mandatory core curriculum.

University of Washington, Seattle

UW has 15 LEED and 17 more in the works. It initiated what it claims to be the first-ever student-initiated fee (called the Campus Sustainability Fund) that supports campus projects with and “environmental impact and high student engagement.” Its composting and recycling programs are responsible for diverting 57 percent of the school’s total waste from landfills. UW has installed solar panels, retrofitted fixtures and replaced 1,800 old toilets, resulting in an estimated 50 million gallons of water saved yearly, with all energy conservation efforts saving an estimated nearly $50 million over 10 years.

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