Go, Green! How Colleges Across the Country are Becoming More Sustainable

Imagine living in a dorm where, upon walking into your lobby, you encounter a monitor that shows you how much water and electricity is currently being used in the building. This might seem futuristic, but it’s the reality for some students at Emory University. And while every school may not be as high tech, your school could be a lot greener than you think.
We’ve all heard about going green, but for many colleges and universities across the country, the commitment to creating a sustainable campus goes far beyond the availability of recycling bins. Companies such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan, along with environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, have created ranking systems to draw attention to what the most environmentally-driven universities are doing to create a sustainable campus for the students, staff, faculty and the community as a whole.

Last month, The Princeton Review, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council, released the 2011 Guide to 311 Green Colleges in free downloadable form.  In the guide, colleges are ranked using criteria such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, transportation alternatives to minimize air pollution, and availability of environmental studies majors and/or courses, among others.
So, what are schools across the country actually doing to go green and how is this affecting the students?
It’s a complicated trend, and one that can be a bit confusing. Luckily, HC has the answers to some crucial questions and insights from collegiettes™ regarding how they feel about their school’s sustainability efforts.
How Are Colleges and Universities Really Going Green?
One of the most common ways schools are going green is through the construction or retrofitting of LEED certified buildings. LEED certification is a recognized standard for buildings that meet certain sustainable criteria, such as minimizing water and electricity consumption.
Miami University’s Farmer School of Business received Silver-level LEED certification through its energy-efficient design, water conservation and use of environmentally friendly construction practices.
However, the Farmer School’s approach was unique in that the concept for the building was actually recommended and developed in one of the business school’s classes. “The initial catalyst for [the building] was a group of students which, as part of a class, were asked to address sustainability issues,” said Alan Oak, assistant dean for external relations.
Alaine Perconti, an HC Campus Correspondent and junior at Miami University said students love the new building. “Alumni who come back are always saying how they graduated too early,” Alaine says. “The facility is really state-of-the-art.”

But Miami University isn’t the only school with a commitment to LEED certification. At the University of Maine, HC Contributing Writer Kayla Riley says there has been a huge initiative for everyone on campus to go green. “This includes a recently built LEED-certified dining hall called Wells Commons and Conference Center and, this year, the addition of a single-stream recycling in residential buildings,” Kayla said.
LEED certification may be the most popular way for schools to go green, but it certainly isn’t the only one. HC Editor Alice Chen says her school, Emory University, has a variety of sustainable practices on campus. “Every week Emory holds a sustainable food fair, during which local growers sell their products, and the University even has its own garden in the middle of campus,” she said. “All the shuttles run on oil collected from the kitchens of our dining locations and almost all of the toilets are dual-flush.”
Does Sustainability Affect Where Students Choose to Attend College?
With more universities deciding to implement sustainable practices each year, is this affecting the number or types of students that the schools attract?
According to a recent poll by The Princeton Review, approximately 69 percent of students consider a school’s sustainability commitment when making their decision about where to attend college, compared to 64 percent in 2008. Though academics and financial aid still rank higher, The Princeton Review has reported that prospective students are more likely to consider sustainability than they did in the past.
Additionally, specific schools may attract environmentally-aware students depending on their respective locations. Crystal Simmons, sustainability specialist at Appalachian State University, says this is certainly true at her school.
“Appalachian State University is located in a pristine mountain environment where the outdoor activities are boundless,” she said. “We naturally attract students, faculty and staff that have an appreciation for the natural environment.”
Does Going Green Cost More For Students?
Though many students might agree with implementing sustainability practices, some might wonder how LEED certification and alternative fuel costs are affecting tuition and other fees. However, universities have developed a variety of ways to fund their green initiatives.
At Appalachian State, there is a $5 fee per student per semester for renewable energy installations. “Other measures that have been implemented, such as energy efficient retrofits, have been funded by the cost savings of the retrofit,” said Simmons.
At Miami University, 50 million of the 65 million dollars needed to construct the new LEED certified Farmer School of Business came exclusively from private donations. The other 15 million came from university-issued bonds—not from students.

How Do Students Feel About Their Sustainable Schools?
Meghan Frick, HC contributing writer and a senior at Appalachian State, says her school’s green practices didn’t influence her decision to attend the school, but going there has opened her eyes to the importance of sustainability.
“I am proud of my university in so many ways, but its continuous efforts to become more and more sustainable are one of the things I always bring up when I’m telling other people how great it is here,” Meghan said.
At Emory, Alice says student participation is divided. “There are some people who live and breathe sustainability, to the point where they will save their trash and recycling until they find somewhere to compost and recycle their waste, whereas others blatantly toss items in the trash even though there is a neighboring recycling bin,” she says.
Are There Any Downsides to Going Green?

Though some schools have developed workable models to fund sustainability, the costs are the main roadblock for many colleges and universities. Retrofitting buildings, purchasing organic food and using green cleaning supplies can be extremely expensive. Therefore, in order to support these initiatives, schools need to have sufficient funding.
Another problem is that it is hard to get everybody at a particular college or university motivated enough to participate. As Alice said, not everybody is willing to take the time to help the school meet its sustainability goals.
How Can Students Get Involved with Going Green?
Not all universities demonstrate a high-level commitment to sustainability, but that doesn’t mean all students can’t get involved. “Students have a lot of influence on a college or university campus, more than they realize,” said Simmons. She recommends that students organize themselves with other students who have the same passion.
Here are some tips to get the ball rolling at your school:

  • Advocate to have recycling bins next to every trash can on campus. Some schools might already have this, but this is the easiest way to make a small change that can go a long way.
  • Start or join an environmental group on campus to bond with other students who want to see change happen.
  • Try and talk to campus administrators about plans for new buildings and/or renovations and ask if they’ve considered LEED certification.
  • Sign up for environmental studies classes to learn more! 

Crystal Simmons, Sustainability Specialist at Appalachian State University
Alan Oak, Dean of External Relations at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business
Anne M. Emmerth, Senior Director of Communications at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business
Meghan Frick, Her Campus Contributing Writer, Appalachian State University 2012
Kayla Riley, Her Campus Contributing Writer, University of Maine 2012
Alaine Perconti, Her Campus Contributing Writer and Campus Correspondent, Miami University 2013
Alice Chen, Her Campus Editor, Emory University 2012
Appalachian State Sustainability Report