Originally Posted: Apr 22, 2020
Last Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Choosing a college isn’t just picking a set of classrooms. For many students and their families, college choice is a direct vote for what they value and who they want to be. Beyond rigorous academics, the best colleges have students who are called to grapple with the most pressing issues of their time. It’s no surprise, then, that more and more students expect their college to take a leadership role in critical issues like environmental sustainability.
By definition, students are seeking knowledge, skills, and mentorship from credible sources—institutions that practice what they preach, with a deep understanding of our history and a shared investment in the future. Students and their colleges have an opportunity and an obligation to consider how we all got here. We must boldly address the problems handed down over generations. It’s a chance to depart from doing things the way they have always been done.
Incubators of change
To be relevant, colleges must be incubators of change, working in broad strokes to achieve victories for humanity and the globe we call home. Of the many challenges shaping our world today, none is more urgent than humanity’s ever-increasing demands on the Earth’s resources. The growth of the industrial economy and spread of consumer culture have correlated directly to our accelerating use of energy and resources as well as the negative byproducts of that use. These byproducts include land, air, and water degradation in areas where coal, tar sand, gas, oil, and uranium have been harvested and spent. And perhaps most pervasively, an enormous amount of carbon dioxide is being generated—unceasingly—and released into the atmosphere.
Training future leaders
Think all this is unrelated to choosing a college? Think again. Colleges have a responsibility to take proactive action. As evidence mounts and the effects of climate change continue to pile up, colleges should train their students to be leaders in the realm of environmental sustainability—agents for a better and more intentional approach to solving these complex challenges. Colleges that don’t take a stand lose credibility both in terms of the scope of their vision and their educational utility.
The way we live in the United States, in terms of energy and resource consumption, simply isn’t sustainable. As they prepare students with the intellectual tools and subject knowledge to be intellectual leaders and catalysts for change, colleges must take a stand, practicing what they preach through strong academics that have transferable application to practical and critical social issues. If colleges fail to adopt a holistic approach to education and sustainability, they risk falling into the trap of “Do as I say, not as I do,” rendering them irrelevant (at best) to the next generation of leaders.
We are already observing the consequences of a changed atmosphere—more frequent and violent storms, expanding areas of drought and desertification, melting glaciers, and record-breaking temperatures are all linked to human activity and unsustainable energy use. The growing position within the scientific community is that the byproducts of these demands pose a significant threat to the quality of life for future generations. All the while, the world’s population continues to grow; it will swell by an amount comparable to the entire population of the United States between the time the Class of 2020 enters college and when they graduate four years later.
Finding a college that takes sustainability seriously
Students face many decisions as they consider their academic future: whether to move across the country or stay close to home, whether the costs of their top-pick schools are worthwhile, and whether to pick a large university or a small college with big ideas. Many schools attempt to lure students by building increasingly luxurious dormitories and investing in state-of-the-art fitness facilities that not only divert resources away from academics and escalate the cost of college but actually create an insurmountable barrier to true sustainability. A typical college uses its grounds to reinforce its marketing—well-manicured lawns and formal gardens convey ample resources and order. Students often make their college choice after stepping foot on campus, so the appearance of the campus is no small consideration. Knowing that appearance is important, some colleges have taken a small first step toward sustainability. They put up a couple of solar panels or generate pages of campus sustainability policy with no clear action plan.
But a solar panel or two is not enough. The appearance of sustainability will not help solve the critical issues at hand. Rather than making rash and minor efforts to “greenwash” their campus to merely appear sustainable, institutions of higher learning need to think bigger. They must consider sustainability efforts a marathon rather than a sprint. It's not enough to preach disconnectedly from a sterile classroom or lab. It's ineffective at best and false advertising at worst for colleges to ignore their responsibility to demonstrate the sort of forwardly critical thinking and bold action they expect students to learn and then build upon after graduation.
Making real change
Colleges and universities have long offered environmental education courses and majors, addressing challenges and their solutions hypothetically. But there are few problems we can solve in a bubble. Sustainability efforts can no longer be siloed into quiet campus environmental task forces. For example, change at my former institution—Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio—doesn’t come from the top-down; it is motivated by the grassroots-up efforts and drive of students. They put a plan is in progress to construct a five-acre solar array that will provide electrical power for a full-campus geothermal plant that heats and cools every building on the grounds.
But that’s just the beginning of what needs to be done. The on-campus farm provides fresh food with low or no carbon footprint, which is served in the North Hall dining room every day. Students work on the farm, learning what it actually means to produce organic food locally and sustainably. Classes explore the chemistry and biology behind agriculture and industry. Students know the choices that they, their peers, and their college make now will have a definitive impact on global environmental health and our quality of life for generations to come.
It isn’t enough for colleges to tout rigorous academics and experiential learning. Students are interested in the demonstrated value of their education, but they also want to stand on the right side of history. In the past, this meant fighting segregation or ending Apartheid in South Africa. More recently, students have pushed their schools to divest tobacco or oil and gas industry holdings. The actions that colleges and their students take now to identify and practice more sustainable ways of living will have significant implications for generations to come.
As you consider which school is right for you, please help advance the conversation around issues of sustainability by asking tough questions and voting with college choice. When you do, you’re helping to build a more sustainable and promising future for us all.