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Higher Education Sustainability Progress

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

A college campus is the ideal place to accelerate the renewable energy transition. Campuses are major energy users and renewable energy commitments have large impacts. Many students are enthusiastic supporters of clean energy and on campus they have a learning laboratory for innovative technology. Sustainability among higher education institutions is now a differentiator for those looking to learn from campuses at the forefront of sustainable practices. Campuses are reducing their energy consumption, obtaining their electricity from renewable sources, meeting heating/cooling and other building needs with renewable energy and moving their fleet to electric vehicles. A logical question is what colleges stand out as leaders in their effort to become sustainable?

It seems like that should be an easy question to answer. However, there are many national rankings of sustainability leaders in higher education; each ranking has a different focus and it makes comparing one ranking to another extremely difficult. The biggest single barometer of a campus’ commitment is whether they have signed onto the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).

In early 2007, 12 college and university presidents launched ACUPCC to address global climate change through actions to reduce and then neutralize greenhouse gas emissions. The participating schools have committed their institutions to create a comprehensive institutional action plan to move towards climate neutrality by: conducting an institutional greenhouse gas inventory; developing a climate action plan to reach climate neutrality; taking immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; making sustainability an integral part of the curriculum and educational experience of all students; and making the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available. In North Carolina, the following universities have made a carbon commitment with dates ranging from 2024 to 2050. These include Catawba College, Davidson College, Duke University, Fayetteville State University, Guilford College, NC State University, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, Wake Tech Community College, and Warren Wilson College.

Princeton Review: The Princeton Review each year develops a list of the top 50 green colleges in the United States. They choose the colleges based on Green Rating scores the company tallied for 689 colleges in summer 2019 using data from its 2018–19 survey of administrators at the colleges. The survey asked administrators to report on their schools’ sustainability-related policies, practices, and programs. More than 25 data points were analyzed for the Green Rating score in terms of schools’ academic offerings, campus policies and practices, and green-career preparation for the students. According to this ranking, the following are the top 10 schools: (1) College of the Atlantic; (2) State College of NY; (3) Dickinson College; (4) Univ. of Vermont; (5) St. Mary’s College of MD; (6) Chatham University; (7) Bowdoin College; (8) Colby College; (9) Colorado State University; (10) Stanford University. NC State University was the highest North Carolina school on the list coming in at number 17.

Best College Reviews: To compile this ranking of the top green universities in the United States, the editors considered three main factors: (1) Princeton Review's comprehensive evaluation of green schools in America; (2) US News and World Report's overall rating of each school; and (3) each school's tuition. In cases of a tie, the more affordable school received the higher ranking. According to this ranking the following are the top 10 schools: (1) UNC Chapel Hill; (2) Iowa State University; (3) Univ. of Virginia; (4) Univ. of Maryland -College Park; (5) Chatham University; (6) Arizona State University; (7) Univ. of Mass. Amherst; (8) Univ. of Oregon; (9) Warren Wilson College; (10) Univ. of California Berkeley.

EPA Green Power Partnership Top 30 College & University: This ranking released by EPA in the fall of 2019, features the largest green power users among higher education institutions. The universities have made clean energy a feature for their use of energy and sustainability a driving force in their mission. According to this ranking, the following are the top 10 schools: (1) University of California; (2) Columbia University; (3) University at Buffalo, State University of New York; (4) University of Pennsylvania; (5) Stanford University; (6) Georgetown University; (7) University of Tennessee at Knoxville; (8) University of Maryland; (9) University of Oklahoma; (10) Carnegie Mellon University.

The Times Higher Education Impact Ranking: This ranking assesses universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals using indicators in research, outreach, and stewardship. The list includes 376 universities from 70 countries. According to this ranking, the following are the top 10 schools: (1) University of British Columbia; (2) Vrije University Amsterdam; (3) University of Tasmania; (4) University of Victoria; (5) Peter the Great St. Petersburg University; (6) University of Helsinki; (7) University at Buffalo; (8) Laval University; (9) Simon Fraser University; (10) Pontifical Bolivarian University - Medeliin.

Second Nature Carbon Neutral Colleges & Universities: Provides a listing of the climate leadership signature schools that have already achieved the goal of carbon neutrality. The following schools are already carbon neutral (1) Allegheny College; (2) American University; (3) Bowdoin College; (4) Colby College; (5) Colgate University; (6) Colorado College; (7) Dickinson College; (8) Middleburg College; and (9) University of San Francisco.

Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS): This is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. Participation in STARS involves collecting information about an institution’s sustainability initiatives and performance, documenting that information in the online Reporting Tool, and submitting a report to earn public recognition. The following are the universities that are rated platinum (the highest ranking): (1) Arizona State University; (2) Colorado State University; (3) Cornell University; (4) Stanford University; (5) Thompson Rivers University; (6) University of California Irvine; (7) University of Connecticut; (8) University of New Hampshire: (9) University de Sherbrooke.

In addition to each of the national rankings listed above, Environment America and Frontier Group developed a report on the college campuses leading the charge toward 100 percent renewable energy. Their report ranked schools several different ways: top ten schools for renewable energy per full-time equivalent enrolled student; top ten schools for renewable electricity generated on campus per student; top ten schools for renewable electricity purchased from off-campus sources per student; list of U.S. Green Power Partnership colleges obtaining 100 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; and finally, the top ten schools for renewable heating, cooling, hot water and other non-electric energy produced per student. There are no North Carolina colleges or universities featured in any of the tables in the report.

So, what is there to learn from all of these different rankings? In the end, universities should pledge carbon neutrality as soon as possible but no later than 2050 and have a clear sustainability plan with accountability measures for how it will be achieved. Schools should also ensure that they have sustainability majors for students because they may go work as sustainability coordinators in the private sector or in a city government that oversees waste, energy or sustainability. Students are our next generation of leaders.

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