The top 10 greenest universities in the United States

Oluwatosin Jegede

When we think about combating climate change, our thoughts might not immediately turn to higher education. Yet, America’s greenest universities are playing a pivotal role in this global challenge. These institutions, renowned for their commitment to environmental responsibility, are not just reducing their carbon footprint but setting the standard for sustainability in education.

As the effects of climate change intensify, these greenest universities are at the forefront, integrating environmentally sustainable strategies to maintain a positive public image and genuinely contribute to a healthier planet.

This guide dives into the best of these institutions, as ranked by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). We’ll explore the emerging green initiatives shaping the future of education and how students actively participate in making their universities more eco-friendly.

What makes a university “green”?

A university earns the title of one of the “greenest universities” by adopting policies and programs that foster a sustainable campus life and reduce reliance on finite resources. This involves aligning with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, as measured by the STARS system.

Universities are assessed on various criteria like institutional characteristics, academics, engagement, operations, planning, and innovative leadership. To attain the prestigious platinum rating in the STARS system, a university must score at least 85 points.

How can universities be more environmentally friendly?

To maintain their status among the greenest universities, institutions must renew their STARS rating every three years, showcasing sustained or enhanced green initiatives. This encompasses improvements in subcategories like campus engagement and environmental education for staff.

Many universities aim to offset their carbon dioxide emissions through sustainable operations and global carbon savings initiatives. Notably, Second Nature reports that ten U.S. universities have achieved total carbon neutrality, with more on track to reach this milestone soon.

What can students do to be more environmentally friendly in college?

Students play a critical role in advancing the environmental agenda of greenest universities. They can contribute by engaging in community projects, joining campus groups, and influencing institutional policies on recycling, energy consumption, and ethical food sourcing through student government.

Additionally, students can integrate environmental activism into their academic pursuits by choosing majors or minors in fields like sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, or marine conservation.

What does sustainable living look like in college?

At the greenest universities, sustainable living is embodied through energy-efficient dorms, diverse and healthy dining options, and varied transportation solutions like campus shuttles and bike paths. Academic programs are also a focal point.

They have a strong emphasis on sustainability-related fields such as urban planning and environmental science. Even programs in seemingly unrelated areas, like an online green MBA, are tailored to incorporate elements of social responsibility and sustainable practices.

1. Stanford University: a platinum eco-pioneer

Stanford University, located in Stanford, CA, stands out as one of the greenest universities, with a platinum STARS rating and a score of 88. Since 2000, the university has impressively reduced its landfill waste by 15% and domestic water use by 36%.

It offers over 390 sustainability courses and an interdisciplinary master’s program in sustainable science and practice. Stanford encourages student involvement in environmental efforts through the My Cardinal Green initiative, promoting sustainable actions in food, transportation, shopping, and campus life.

2. Princeton University: gold standard in sustainability

In Princeton, NJ, Princeton University has achieved a gold STARS ranking through its Office of Sustainability. The university guides students in recycling, water conservation, and waste reduction.

Princeton has 15 sustainability student groups and offers community service through the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. Highlighting its commitment, Princeton launched a sustainability action plan in 2019, aiming for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2046.

3. Columbia University: green innovator in the big apple

Columbia University in New York City is another of the greenest universities. It boasts a gold STARS rating and an award for Best Overall Program in Transportation. The university has committed to renewable electricity usage and aims for carbon neutrality before 2050. Students can join the Sustainable Leaders Network, engage in environmental clubs, and research with the Center for Sustainable Development. Columbia offers green degrees, like a bachelor’s in environmental biology.

4. University of Pennsylvania: eco-friendly urban campus

Located in Philadelphia, PA, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) holds a gold STARS rating. Penn aims for complete carbon neutrality by 2042, emphasizing energy conservation and sustainable building practices. Students can participate in the Eco-Reps program, work on sustainability projects, and apply for grants and fellowships. As one of the greenest universities, Penn continually adapts its academic programs to include sustainability-focused coursework.

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: leading with sustainable innovation

In Cambridge, MA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) integrates sustainability into its 2030 action plan, focusing on energy efficiency and solar energy systems. MIT’s commitment includes a 25-year power purchase agreement for a 60-megawatt solar farm. Students and faculty are encouraged to engage in self-motivated research or institutional projects like the MIT Energy Initiative and to utilize sustainable transportation options provided by the Access MIT program.

6. Cornell University: a leader in sustainable education

Cornell University is located in Ithaca, NY. It proudly holds a platinum STARS rating, one of only eleven institutions to achieve this highest designation. Since 2021, Cornell’s campus has been a hub for education and progress in sustainability, operating as a living laboratory. It was the first Ivy League to aim for carbon neutrality in 2007, accomplishing this goal in just eight years. The university is largely powered by renewable energy from solar farms and a hydropower plant. Cornell offers over 700 sustainability-focused classes and encourages participation in green initiatives.

7. Bowdoin College: carbon neutral and community-focused

In Brunswick, ME, Bowdoin College stands as one of ten U.S. higher education institutions to achieve carbon neutrality, along with a gold STARS rating. Bowdoin fosters a culture of sustainability, urging students to adopt practical green living actions. Participants can earn rewards and leadership opportunities. The college also hosts Earthstock, an annual sustainability fair featuring a barbecue and music festival.

8. Northwestern University: an award-winning green campus

Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, has not only a gold STARS rating but also two Energy Star Partner of the Year Awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Northwestern’s strategic sustainability plan focuses on resource conservation and green transportation options, including campus shuttles, a bike-share program, and electric vehicle charging stations.

9. University of California-Berkeley: pioneering environmental strategies

Berkeley, located in Berkeley, CA, aims for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2025 and boasts a platinum STARS rating. Students can join groups like the Housing and Dining Sustainability Advocates and the Zero Waste Coalition. The university offers over 600 sustainability-focused classes, accounting for 18% of its course catalog.

10. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: commitment to sustainable futures

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, with a gold STARS rating, focuses on waste reduction, community engagement, and creating healthy environments. The university aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% between 2015 and 2025. U-M offers over 700 sustainability-related courses and supports student research through programs like the Graham Sustainability Scholars and the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program.

Read also: Top 10 technologically advanced universities in the world

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