Choosing a College Based on Environmental Values

Many college students are concerned about the size of their personal environmental footprint, and many college campuses are supportive of this endeavor. If you are using eco-friendliness as a factor in selecting a college or as inspiration to start a program at your college, consider that “eco-friendly” is a broad concept that can be interpreted and measured in several ways. 

When people think “eco-friendly,” recycling is one of the first activities that springs to mind. Large, colorful recycling bins make it easy to associate post-consumer recycling with environmentalism in general. On its “Zero Waste Campuses” page, the GrassRoots Recycling Network mentions initiatives at Brown University, Connecticut College, State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the University of Oregon and Ball State University.

Self-compacting trash cans can also make a positive change. They reduce the needed frequency for garbage trucks to drive by to pick up and compact the waste. BigBelly Solar, a company that makes solar-powered compactors, mentions Iowa State University, Boston University and Kutztown University among their clients.

Dining halls compost food waste at Meredith College, UC Davis, and Oberlin College, just to name a few. Composting spares the food scraps from being sent to the landfill, where they will be contaminated and take up space, and instead results in them being turned into fertilizer for farms.

But there is much more to eco-friendliness than waste management. One major concern is how a school fosters students’ transportation habits. Over a quarter of all the energy consumed in the US in 2008 went to transportation, according to The National Academies. Williams College issued a report in 2007 about reducing unnecessary car use on campus.

So, if you are concerned about the environmental resources that you and your classmates use during your studies, it will be important to consider how much the campus culture relies upon students having their own automobiles. Do most students live on-campus or off-campus? How do they get to class:  by foot, bike, public transportation, or car? Do most students have cars? Does living car-free on campus positively or negatively impact students’ social life and access to jobs? These preferences can be personal in nature, but it is important to clarify them.

The school’s location – whether it is urban, suburban, or rural – relates directly to the students’ transportation needs and habits. The school’s location will also give important clues about how the school, as an institution, repurposes old, historical buildings or builds newer, more efficient ones. In 2010, Ithaca College had two dorms that earned the coveted Energy Star label. Remember that being “eco-friendly” in a city environment can mean something much different than “eco-friendly” in a rural environment. St. Olaf College owns a 700-acre farmland preserve that it is partially restoring to natural habitat.

You will also want to know about the environment-related courses available at the school. Even if you do not plan on majoring in environmental science or resource management (such as agriculture, forestry or fisheries), a good environmental studies program on campus may positively influence the student culture. Mother Nature Network cites some of the best programs:  Northland College, SUNY-ESF, Middlebury College, Cornell University, Duke University, College of the Atlantic, Arizona State University, Yale University, Green Mountain College, and Montana State University.

College is a formative experience. It is important to select a campus where you feel comfortable and where you will also be challenged. Many colleges take environmental awareness seriously and put it into practice on an institutional level, and they encourage their students to do so, too. This can be an important part of learning about the world and about what kind of person you want to be.