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A Green Guide to Finding the Best Eco-Friendly Colleges

More and more students are searching for environmentally responsible colleges. Learn what eco-friendly really means and how to find a campus that cares.

In a world that’s increasingly conscious of environmental issues, many students are seeking higher education institutions that align with their values of sustainability and environmental responsibility. The quest for eco-friendly colleges and universities goes beyond typical academic considerations, encompassing campus practices, curriculum offerings, and community engagement in environmental initiatives. If you’re looking to go green in your college search, here's a starter guide to help you find colleges that prioritize environmental stewardship.

Understanding eco-friendly colleges

Before diving into the search process, it's essential to understand what makes a college eco-friendly. While definitions may vary, environmentally friendly colleges typically exhibit several key characteristics:

  • Sustainable campus practices: A college that is truly environmentally friendly prioritizes sustainability in its operations. This includes energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy sources, waste reduction and recycling programs, water conservation efforts, and sustainable transportation options. One great example is the University of Chicago, a recent ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award winner for their commitment to energy efficiency.
  • Green curriculum: Many colleges offer academic programs focused on Environmental Studies, Sustainability, Renewable Energy, Conservation, and related fields. They also integrate sustainability principles into various disciplines, from Engineering to Business to the Humanities. For example, the University of Connecticut offers hundreds of sustainability-focused courses and even implemented an environmental literacy gen ed requirement in 2019.
  • Environmental initiatives: Green colleges actively engage in environmental advocacy, research, and community outreach. This could involve partnerships with local environmental organizations, participation in sustainability-focused events, and campus-wide initiatives to promote eco-conscious behavior. Take, for instance, the Institute for Sustainability and the Environment at Pace University, which provides “experiential and place-based educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds, degrees, and academic levels” while “foster[ing] collaboration with external partners through training and leadership.”
  • Student involvement: It’s also important to assess the level of student involvement in sustainability efforts. Look for colleges with active environmental clubs, student-led initiatives, and opportunities for hands-on experience in sustainability projects. One super-active institution is the University of Colorado Boulder, whose Division of Student Affairs houses an Environmental Center that hosts workshops, meetings, and volunteer opportunities for students related to campus sustainability efforts.

Related: 5 of the Most Sustainable Universities in the World

Resources for finding eco-friendly colleges

From rankings and reports to campus visits and networking, there are several ways to find and research institutions that are committed to sustainability. Here are some key resources to utilize as you conduct your college search.

  • Official college rankings and guides: Several organizations produce lists and guides specifically focused on sustainable colleges. The Princeton Review’s Green Colleges Guide and Rankings and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education offer valuable insights into colleges' green initiatives and practices. CollegeXpress also offers lists and articles to help you in your green college search. Check out recommendations from real students in our list of The Best Colleges and Universities for an Eco-Friendly Campus Lifestyle, or read about 10 Great Universities at the Forefront of Climate Change Education.
  • Sustainability reports: Many colleges publish annual sustainability reports detailing their environmental performance, goals, and achievements. These reports provide valuable information about a college's commitment to sustainability and ongoing efforts to reduce its environmental footprint. Try Googling the name of your college(s) of interest plus “sustainability report,” or look for a Sustainability section on a school’s official website.
  • Campus visits and tours: Whenever possible, schedule campus visits and tours to experience a college's sustainability initiatives firsthand. Pay attention to campus facilities, recycling bins, green spaces, alternative transportation options, and any signage or information related to sustainability efforts. Don’t forget to take notes about everything you find!
  • Virtual tours and webinars: In addition to physical visits, many colleges offer virtual tours and webinars that highlight their sustainability initiatives. Take advantage of these online resources to learn more about a college's commitment to environmental stewardship, even if you’ve already visited campus.
  • Student and alumni networks: Connect with current students and alumni to learn about their experiences with sustainability on campus. Social media platforms, forums, and alumni networks can be valuable for gathering insights and perspectives from those familiar with a college's culture.

Tips for evaluating eco-friendly colleges

So you found the Sustainability page of a school’s website or saw recycling bins in the dining hall. But how do you really know they follow through on their environmental promises? Here are a few ways to dig even deeper:

  • Research institutional policies: Review a college's mission statement, sustainability policies, and strategic plans to understand its commitment to the environment. Look for specific goals, targets, and initiatives related to sustainability as well as reports about any progress they’ve achieved.
  • Assess campus facilities: Research a college’s facilities, infrastructure, and operations to further gauge its sustainability efforts. Consider factors such as LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy installations, water conservation measures, and waste management practices. If you can’t find this information on a school’s website, email them so they can point you in the right direction.
  • Explore academic offerings: Investigate the academic programs a college offers, including majors, minors, and courses related to environmental studies and sustainability. Look for interdisciplinary programs, research opportunities, and experiential learning initiatives in these areas as well.
  • Engage with the community: Learn about a college's partnerships with local communities, businesses, and environmental organizations. You can also inquire about opportunities for community engagement, service learning, and environmental activism both on and off campus.
  • Consider student support services: Evaluate the availability of available student services related to sustainability. These could include green living communities, eco-representatives, and sustainability-focused events and workshops.

Related: 10 Colleges That Went Green Before It Was Cool

Finding an eco-friendly college may take some extra research, but you are far from alone in your quest. By using all the resources available to you and looking beyond academic reputation or campus amenities, you can find a college that shares your desire to make the world a better place. It’s time to get out there and start your search for the best colleges for you and the planet!

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