- The latest annual Sustainable Campus Index offers a look at how colleges approach 17 sustainability indicators — from the curriculum and public engagement to purchasing practices and building performance — based on their size, type and country.
- Of 503 institutions tracked, more than half (297) were U.S.-based. Additionally, 158 were doctoral institutions while 78 each were master's or bachelor's and 25 were associate-level.
- U.S. colleges trailed Canadian institutions, although there were fewer of the latter (35) and they tended to be larger, which generally fare better in the ranking, Monika Urbanski, data and content manager at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), told Education Dive in an interview.
The index uses AASHE's STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) self-reported framework for measuring institutions' sustainability. Of the 967 colleges participating in STARS, 789 are from the U.S.
The latest survey shows important differences in how colleges approach sustainability.
Bachelor's degree institutions fared slightly better than master's institutions because many of the smaller schools that participate in STARS tend to be environmentally focused, Urbanski said, citing colleges such as Northland College in Wisconsin and Unity College in Maine.
"They do really well in credits that fall under the academic section, and that will help boost their overall score," she said.
Doctoral institutions scored highest across all college types. Urbanski credits that to their scale and ability to institute policies and procedures whose presence factors heavily into the STARS rating.
"Smaller schools may only have a sustainability officer or sometimes it's just a committee working on these efforts, whereas larger schools may have a whole department," she said.
It's worth noting that because a U.S. organization administers the survey, it tends to favor those colleges, which are more likely to be tracking factors such as diversity and affordability, Urbanski said. U.S. colleges led the ranking on that measure, which includes campus equity assessments and efforts to improve faculty diversity and recruit underrepresented students. Stanford and Rice universities and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley topped that list.
On the environmental front, institutions are responding to the intensifying impact of climate change by making holistic and systemic changes, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier this year. Volatile weather and other natural disasters have institutions preparing year-round for once-seasonal events. And rising temperatures have caused them to expand systems such as air cooling while seeking ways to manage energy consumption.
To moderate the sometimes considerable upfront investment in these efforts and to address the need for subject-matter expertise, some colleges are turning to private partners for help. Analysts expect public-private partnerships for energy-management projects, in particular, to become more widely used in the sector.
Globally, colleges are working together on sustainability benchmarks that cover areas such as climate response as well as student well-being. A recent survey of 110 institutions that signed onto one such agreement noted three limitations going forward: staff capacity, funding and institutional understanding of the sustainability goals.