ByMaureen Wise

Feb 18, 2022
University of California, Irvine

There’s a lot of work going on in higher education surrounding sustainability. If you’re a student who’s interested in working in sustainability-related fields, a growing number of green universities offer courses and degree programs to prepare you for your future career.

In addition, many of these schools are making their campuses greener places to learn, work, and live. Students, faculty, and staff alike are all working together to make it happen. Establishing environmentally friendly habits and processes throughout institutions of higher education helps everyone on campus embrace green practices as normal. In addition, campuses have a big land footprint and may influence the city where they are located to make sustainable choices that benefit them both.

Green School Lists and Commitments

Many universities and colleges that are committing to reducing emissions create climate action plans. This often includes setting a carbon-neutral goal with an end date and signing a Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment through Second Nature. Along with these commitments, institutions often offer data to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) through their Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ (STARS®). STARS data is then sent to a number of green school lists —  including the Princeton Review’s Green Schools List and Sierra Club’s Cool Schools list.

We took a look at the three top-ranking green universities on the 2021 Cool Schools list to see what these schools are offering.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University (ASU) came out on top of the Sierra Club’s Cool School list in late 2021 and has often made the top 10 in the past few years. The university earned a Platinum ranking through STARS and a score of 91.31 on the Sierra Club Cool Schools list. It also earned the highest ranking possible from the Princeton Review’s Green Schools List in 2021.

Arizona State University School of Sustainability
Wind turbines on the roof of the ASU School of Sustainability. Photo: Arizona State University

Located in Tempe, Arizona, ASU has four campuses throughout the Phoenix metro area. It also has multiple satellite campuses throughout Arizona, the U.S., and internationally. The university has over 4,700 faculty members and nearly 111,000 students enrolled for credit.

Arizona State reports that nearly 15% of its course offerings include a sustainability component and about 95% of its degrees include some sort of sustainability course. The School of Sustainability in ASU’s College of Global Futures offers undergraduate degrees in sustainability and sustainable food systems. It also offers a selection of master’s degree and Ph.D. programs. There are many student organizations and events that promote sustainability, such as Campus Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, Sustainabilibuddies, The Honor Society for Sustainability, College of Global Futures College Council, and many more.

Bicycles on campus of Arizona State University, Tempe
Bike parking on ASU campus. Photo: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASU is home to the innovative Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, part of the Julia Anne Writely Global Futures Laboratory. The university obtained full neutrality for Scope One and Two emissions since the fiscal year 2019.

University of California Irvine

University of California Irvine (UCI) was second on the Sierra Club’s Cool School ranking in 2021 and the only campus that has been in the top 10 for the past 12 years. The university earned a Platinum rating through STARS and a score of 89.95 on the Sierra Club Cool Schools list in 2021. It also earned the highest ranking possible from the Princeton Review’s Green Schools List in 2021 and has been on Princeton Review’s Green College Honor Roll for nine consecutive years.

University of California, Irvine
UCI’s McGaugh Hall is dedicated to different sciences and houses many research labs. Photo: University of California Irvine

Located in Irvine, California, UCI has nearly 37,000 full-time students enrolled for credit and about 3,500 faculty.

UCI reports that nearly 50% of their course offerings include sustainability and over 96% of their academic departments provide sustainability course offerings. The university offers several sustainability-focused degrees, including an Environmental Science and Policy B.A. degree, a B.A. of Urban Studies, and Environmental Engineering degrees, as well as several related minors. The many earth-focused student organizations include the Green Medicine Initiative at UCI, Engineers for a Sustainable World, and the Earth Systems Science Club. The UCI Sustainability Resource Center offers programming, internships, training, and other opportunities.

The university diverts 80% of its waste from the landfill or incinerator by recycling, composting, donating, or re-selling campus waste.

Thompson Rivers University

Thompson Rivers University (TRU) was listed in the third spot in the Sierra Club’s 2021 Cool School List. TRU earned a Platinum rating through STARS and a score of 89.63 on the Sierra Club Cool Schools list. It also earned the highest ranking possible from the Princeton Review’s Green Schools List.

Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo: Thompson Rivers University

Located in Kamloops, British Columbia, the Canadian university has a second campus in Williams Lake. TRU has over 22,000 full-time students and more than 1,800 employees.

Twenty-five percent of TRU’s course offerings include sustainability and over 95% of departments include some sort of sustainability course offering (data from 2019-2020 academic year). The university offers a Geography and Environmental Studies Major and a Bachelor of Natural Resource Science Major as well as a Leadership in Environmental Sustainability certificate. It also offers master’s degree programs in Environmental Science and Environmental Economics and Management. Thompson Rivers University has a number of student organizations relating to sustainability including TRUSU ECO Club, TRU Environmental Law and Natural Resources Club, and the Biology Undergraduate Students Club (BUGs).

TRU has a unique solar photovoltaic array, their Solar Compass, which is embedded into the concrete walking area outside one of the main campus buildings. A new Campus Tree Program provides opportunities to preserve trees on campus. And TRU offers bike-sharing and aid to employees to purchase e-bikes.

There are plenty of other schools improving the sustainability of their campus and offering sustainability degrees. You can find more information about green universities in the public STARS reports.

Feature image: University of California Irvine

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies and organizations. She also is a sustainability consultant and previously worked in higher education sustainability and watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of an arts and environment nonprofit, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler. Wise writes eco-mysteries under the pen name Iris March.