Sustaining Admissions:
How prospective students are tracking down institutions' environmental records and using them in the college decision-making process

July 2, 2008

by Howard and Matthew Greene

IN THE LATE 1990s, WE WORKED WITH A YOUNG woman who had a very strong focus on environmental action. At the time, it was the rare student who placed her own environmentalism and that of prospective colleges so squarely in the forefront of her admissions process.

In this case, Sarah (as we'll call her) not only took apart the environmental policies and course programs (or lack thereof) of prospective colleges, but she also wrote passionately about her efforts to recycle just about everything her family and school produced as "waste." She had attended a high school exchange program in Maine that helped her develop that environmental awareness. The basket of schools that would meet her needs and interests seemed small, and that she eventually chose Bates College (Maine) was not a surprise to us.

A decade later, the context has dramatically changed. Al Gore, whose book Earth in the Balance came out in 1992, now has a share of a Nobel Prize. His film An Inconvenient Truth has an Oscar. Global warming, greenhouse gases, and sustainability are on the minds, it seems, of most colleges and students these days.

But is this truly the case? Is an interest in a college's sustainability practices, or lack thereof, impacting students' choice of colleges? Where in the hierarchy of admissions needs and preferences does sustainability rank? Truth be told, we don't have very much data to assess these questions. But we can take a deeper look at how sustainability may affect admissions.

Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, tells us that his organization has commissioned a survey to track high school students' attitudes and priorities regarding sustainability and environmentalism. And the recently released survey report "Campus Greening Efforts," conducted by researchers at The College of William & Mary (Va.), assessed whether these efforts made a difference in the behavior of students on campuses that were more or less committed to sustainability. The study did find some significant impact on students' activities, such as turning off their computers, when a college put more of a focus on climate change.

It seems this survey was able to identify a shift in student attitudes about choosing green colleges. Current freshmen are two times more likely to choose a school based on sustainability concerns compared to the entering freshman class just three years ago (13.5 percent today versus 6.5 percent then), the survey found. We may be at the front of a new wave of students basing college decisions in part on how sustainable an institution is.

Nicole Scheer-Irvine, a study co-director and third-year William & Mary student, says, "It was unexpected to see that freshmen now value a school's 'greenness' so much more than students even in my own junior class did. When I was applying to colleges it was simply not a factor."

While 13.5 percent is not a huge proportion of applicants and this is a fairly small survey, the results begin to capture the notion that more students are currently taking environmental action into account when assessing their prospective colleges-and one could probably surmise that this trend is likely to continue and accelerate for some time.

Consider the increase in students taking the Advanced Placement class and exam in Environmental Science. According to The College Board, just 456 high schools offered this AP course in 1998. By 2007, 2,501 high schools had it. Th is puts the class in the same ballpark as such AP subjects as Economics, Computer Science A, Studio Art, Music Theory, and World History.

Although Environmental Science is less available and popular than staples like Calculus AB (11,819 high schools), Biology (8,486), or U.S. History (10,824), it has seen one of the most dramatic increases in terms of the number of students taking the AP exam. There has been a tenfold increase between 1998 and 2007 (52,416 exams taken). By comparison, the number of Biology test takers doubled during this time (144,796 exams taken in 2007).

(As a side note, we'd like to encourage admissions administrators to take the Environmental Science class and exam more seriously and as an indication of genuine student interest, not just as an "easy AP" substitute for the Biology or Chemistry class.)

This trend raises a question: What is sustainability anyway, and how does one measure it at different colleges?

The Independent 529 Plan surveyed finance officers at member colleges and reported in March that campus sustainability initiatives was one of the major topics that CFOs were discussing. According to the survey, 65 percent of these administrative leaders spent more time thinking about sustainability during the past year.

Colleges and universities feel pressure to be in the forefront of this movement. Still, there are hefty price tags for steps such as joining the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, erecting buildings to LEED standards, and adopting energy-efficient purchasing policies.

Several ways to measure colleges' greening efforts have been developed. Among them are the College Sustainability Report Card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute; the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System), developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; the Presidents Climate Commitment initiative; and the Green Power Partnership sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pitting athletic conferences against one another, the annual EPA Green Power Challenge anointed the University of Pennsylvania, with 193 million kilowatt hours, as the top academic buyer of alternative energy.

And then there's The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is perhaps the most familiar and tangible indicator of environmental awareness on college campuses, with LEED-certified building becoming an expectation.

Grist, an online source of environmental news, ranks top green colleges, as does the Sierra Club, Current magazine, and Kiwi magazine. The Princeton Review has even announced plans to add a "Green Rating" to its 2009 college guides. In conjunction with EcoAmerica, the Review reportedly developed the green rating after about two-thirds of college applicants indicated they would value having that sort of information.

The front-runners in rating colleges' greening efforts seem to be the report card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute and the STARS, which was recently updated by AASHE. As of now, the College Sustainability Report Card assesses just the 200 higher ed institutions with the largest endowments. Only six of these IHEs merited an A- overall grade this year; four schools earned an F and 21 a D-. Yet the Report Card notes a clear "green groundswell" on campuses, with nearly 45 percent of IHEs committing to fight climate change through cutting carbon emissions.

And the STARS, which about 90 IHEs are now piloting, aims to be transparent, allowing colleges to track their green progress over time.

As we have shown, there are models out there. Programs and rating systems are available. There might even be more money to help your institution join the bandwagon. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Higher Education Sustainability Act, which seeks to provide grants to IHEs to develop, implement, and evaluate sustainability curricula, practices, and academic programs. What should your college do, and why do anything?

Environmentalism is very much on the minds of today's students. Those who are highly attuned to these issues will seek out the information available on colleges' sustainability efforts from the variety of sources mentioned here and many others, including student and faculty bloggers.

Environmental awareness is developing into an expectation that most campuses will be as sustainable as possible, and students will have concerns over egregious violators. In fact, students are taking the lead in this movement at many institutions, cross-pollinating with their peers in this highly mobile and technologically savvy generation.

Colleges can stay ahead of the curve by taking a comprehensive, integrated view of their sustainability efforts. They can feature their missions as they relate to environmental policies and practices, what they're doing on campus and in the larger world, and the role of students in promoting sustainability. IHEs can also present sustainability as an element of values, in terms of residential life features, by way of featuring academic programs in these areas, and as a set of programs that make economic sense.

Considering the corporate movement toward "turning green into gold," preparing students to work in an environmentally aware workforce makes good sense, both economically and ecologically.