Why Choose a Sustainable Campus?

There are many factors that will play into your decision of where to attend college, but have you considered campus sustainability?

I’ve participated in the college recruitment process from every conceivable angle. Most recently, when I was a college president, I would study our admission numbers, assess our marketing and branding, and think about all of the ways that we could attract appropriate students to Unity College. Before that, as a parent, I went on numerous college tours and tried to offer the best advice to my daughter and son. Many years ago—almost 50 (gasp!)—I was a high school student trying to figure out where to go.

Now, I travel the country far and wide, visiting numerous campuses and consulting about sustainability leadership. I write with great confidence that every campus I visit has distinguishing qualities, excellent staff and faculty, and a community that aspires to serve its students. Colleges and universities have different cultures, histories, missions, and specialties. Most of the time, a student will choose an institution based on finances ("Where can I afford to go?"), location ("Where do I want to be?"), identity ("Who am I and who do I want to be around?"), program ("What to I want to study?"), and prospects ("Will my program lead to a job?").

If you are trying to figure out where you should attend college, I’d like to offer another factor that might help shape your choice: to what extent does a campus embody the principles of sustainability? I’ll start by explaining what sustainability is, and then explain why it’s essential for a twenty-first century education. Then I’ll provide some ways that you can determine whether it’s a campus priority.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is ultimately a community vision, an aspiration that emphasizes meaningful work, reasonable comfort and security, a clean and safe environment, good health, and opportunities for personal growth. A sustainability ethos is an approach to living and learning that links these qualities to ecological awareness. It seeks to make those connections by calling attention to how personal actions and community practices affect the natural world. The concept of sustainability projects the good life and couples it to ecological conscience.

Increasingly, college and university campuses are embracing sustainability because it improves the quality of campus life. It’s a forward-looking approach to energy, economics, community well-being, and technological innovation. A campus that takes sustainability seriously—both in its academic programs and in its master planning—is more likely to be a vibrant, caring, innovative, creative, and resilient place to live, work, and study.

Why sustainability is important on college campuses

When you attend college, you are exposed to countless ideas and opportunities. The so-called “co-curriculum” represents all of the learning that takes place outside the classroom—what you learn about living in a community, the people you meet and the relationships you develop, the food you eat, the clubs you join, the internships and jobs you experience. These are more than intangible benefits. They represent the heart and soul of living in a campus environment. When a campus has a rich portfolio of sustainability initiatives, you are more likely to be exposed to healthier food, community service opportunities, and a creative approach to lifestyle behaviors. In the twenty-first century, personal success will be measured by the extent to which you live a meaningful life in a sustainable community. Look for a campus that emphasizes these qualities, because it will prepare you for the experiences that will most matter in your future.

Increasingly, the sustainability ethos is permeating the standard curriculum. Business schools now have “green” M.B.A. programs. Colleges of architecture, design, and planning promote sustainable approaches to their professions. Many undergraduate programs have required sustainability courses, or they are incorporated into traditional majors. You don’t have to major in sustainability studies to learn how to live a good life or to get a great job. But a campus that emphasizes sustainability will have a curriculum that reflects those values, and it will better prepare you for the many challenges that lie ahead.

Look for signs of sustainability during your campus visits

When you visit a campus, check out the extent to which sustainability initiatives are visible. Are there renewable energy installations? Is recycling evident? Does the cafeteria offer health and/or local choices? Is there an efficient transportation system? Are lots of folks riding bicycles? Do the buildings reflect the principles of sustainable design? Are there signs and exhibits that depict campus sustainability initiatives? Does the curriculum offer courses and programs that highlight sustainability?

There are many criteria that will ultimately determine where you choose to attend college. Hopefully, you will choose a campus that is preparing you for a great life and career, an institution that can change with the times and equips you with the life skills to be a contributing community member. In my experience, one of the best ways to assess campus vitality, creativity, and excellence is to observe whether its sustainability initiatives are woven into the fabric of campus life. Please keep that in mind as you think about your educational future.

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About Mitchell Thomashow

Mitchell Thomashow is the Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. He consults with colleges and universities on sustainability leadership. He is President Emeritus of Unity College. His most recent book is The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, published by The MIT Press.

 

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