The superlative “best party school” is getting some competition when it comes to luring students to campus.
Increasingly, prospective students are looking at universities’ commitment to environmental issues when deciding to apply or enroll. According to a 2008 study by Northwestern University, 63% of college applicants indicated that a college’s commitment to environmental issues would contribute to their decision to apply or to attend that school.
These numbers shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sustainability efforts are no longer limited to “hippie” schools; they’re an expected feature of universities large and small.
Academic-based companies like the Princeton Review and Kaplan have recognized student interest in the environment. According to its website, Princeton Review included colleges’ “environmentally-related policies, practices and academic offerings” as part of its ranking criteria. Kaplan’s 2009 “College Guide” included 25 green schools, as well as a guide to green careers.
These organizations and companies are responding to a shift in applicants’ interests, as more and more students look at a university’s carbon footprint when considering schools.
This shift in student interest represents an important change in attitudes for society, too. As microcosms of society at large, colleges play an important role in the sustainability movement. Like many communities, universities must address recycling, energy efficiency, and waste disposal. Unlike many communities, however, colleges deal almost exclusively with younger populations who vary in their commitment to the environment. Unlike many other facets of society, college campuses can enact positive environmental policies for their students without facing opposition from politicians or other naysayers. Universities are efficient systems when it comes to promoting change, largely because they are homogenous groups directed by an administrative figurehead.
Including sustainability and environmental studies in educational programs is a great first step for universities looking to raise awareness in their campus communities. Many students enrolled in universities are interested in sustainability issues, but aren’t always aware of the resources that are available at their particular schools. Using campus resources like student organizations, guest speakers, and classrooms to raise student involvement is critical to molding responsible citizens at universities nationwide.
While awareness campaigns can help improve attitudes on a campus, they only go so far. In order to combat inevitable apathy, universities must make sustainability an easy choice for students and staff members alike. Technology developments like single-stream recycling and solar compactors provide enormous opportunities for colleges to encourage sustainable practices among the student body. Both involve familiar means—recycling bins and trash cans—but each takes the pain out of having an environmental conscience. There’s no sorting of plastic, metal, and paper when it comes to single-stream recycling systems, and solar compactors require nothing other than a sunny day.
Though the costs of these technological improvements and awareness campaigns aren’t often cheap, smaller universities should be encouraged by the example of other schools who have managed to earn an A in green higher education. Investment in sustainable improvements like environmental curriculum and improved recycling programs can actually make the university more attractive to potential applicants and current students.
Colleges have an invaluable opportunity to lead the rest of the nation toward a more sustainable future. By responding to students’ concerns and interests, as well as considering the long-term environmental costs, many U.S. universities are leading by example.