The Most Sustainable Colleges In America

More and more, students seem to be using environmental credentials as a key decision-making factor in deciding where to go college. Which schools are doing it best?

The Most Sustainable Colleges In America
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Aspiring higher eduction students have all sorts of reasons for picking a college: academic performance, cost of tuition, and alcohol availability among them. But, according to a new survey, one consideration is rising fast amid all the others: environmental performance.


According to the Princeton Review’s latest “Hopes and Worries” survey, which scans the views of 7,445 college-bound students, 68% now say commitment to sustainability impacts their college choice.

“That’s very different statement from five years ago, and it would have been almost unheard of 10 years ago,” says Rob Franek, the Princeton Review’s vice president of publishing. “The change is coming from high school students making decisions with their feet because of that sustainability commitment, academic or otherwise.”

In response to the increased interest in sustainability, the Princeton Review has teamed up with the U.S. Green Building Council, to produce a green guide to 320 U.S. colleges, plus two Canadian ones. The choice of schools, from 760 that submitted survey responses, is based on campus environmental initiatives, how deeply the curriculum integrates sustainability, and how well the colleges are preparing students for green jobs.

Questions in the survey cover waste-diversion rates, whether buildings are LEED-certified, if schools offer environmental programs, or have “environmental literacy” requirements, whether they have full-time sustainability officers, and the proportion of energy generated from renewables. The survey even looks at how college endowments invest their money. The guide is more narrative than ranking–though it does single out 16 for special praise (see the sidebar for the full list).

“The best integrate sustainability across their community, how they manage their finances, their academic offerings, and their operations. They don’t treat sustainability as an add-on or extra-credit assignment,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools.

“They don’t have an environmental studies major, and call it a day. They are actually looking at how sustainability is woven into every single major and minor.”


Franek reckons colleges that don’t pay attention to sustainability run the risk of losing students to competitors. “Schools that are not endorsing sustainable initiatives really need to listen to their student consumers,” he says.

But even the best still have a lot of room for improvement, says Gutter. “There aren’t any schools that are climate neutral, or that make more energy than they take from the grid, that have a closed-loop water system, or that graduate 100% who are sustainability-literate. They’ve all a long way to go, and there’s a moment for humility in that.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.