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Colleges Fight to Prove Their Commitment to Sustainability

This week we are talking about Majors Making a Difference, focusing much of our content on how universities around the globe are integrating sustainability into their campuses and their curricula.

In a special series on education from the New York Times, Kate Zernike recently wrote about how more and more students are now choosing universities based on a school's ability to provide a sustainability-focused environment and education. And as this trend continues, an increasing number of colleges are lining up to deliver:

Green is good for the planet, but also for a college’s public image. In a Princeton Review survey this year of 10,300 college applicants, 63 percent said that a college’s commitment to the environment could affect their decision to go there.
And where there are application decisions to be made, there are rankings. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, with more than 660 members, is developing a rating for environmental friendliness; at least six other organizations rated campus greenness last year, according to the group. There are lists from Forbes, Grist and Sierra magazines, and an annual report card from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a research organization that assesses the greenness of an institution’s investment portfolio. And the Princeton Review will give its top marks to — ta-da! — Arizona State, Bates, Binghamton University, the College of the Atlantic, Harvard, Emory, Georgia Institute of Technology, Yale and the Universities of New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington.
Campuses across the country are racing to be the greenest of them all. They are setting dates in the not too distant future for achieving carbon neutrality (the College of the Atlantic, an eco-college in Maine, already claims that distinction, as does Middlebury College’s Snow Bowl ski area). They are hiring sustainability coordinators (the association’s job board used to get one posting a month; now it often has five a week). And they are competing with one another in buying green power (in an Environmental Protection Agency contest among athletic conferences, the Ivies triumphed, with a combined 221.6 million kilowatt hours for the quarter ending in April).

As colleges fight to climb the ranks to win the title of greenest, as the article points out, we should be wary of those in a rush to declare themselves 'green.' Seeing through they hype and looking for the facts on which colleges are truly committed to improvement may be a student's first test in determining what's sustainable.

For more ideas about what to study and where, or to join the debate, check out this week's feature, Majors Making a Difference.

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