It’s not surprising that we can look to higher education to find leaders in sustainability. Historically, colleges and universities are at the forefront of change. Research shows that sustainability was already a core consideration in many universities in the 1970s — around the same time as the term “sustainability” was officially coined. Currently, 330 U.S. colleges have committed to being net-zero by 2050, and they are among roughly 15% of the 1,599 organizations worldwide that have divested over $40.5 trillion dollars from fossil fuels.  


This focus is critical because colleges have a substantial impact on the environment, and people. From their sprawling campuses and energy consumption to the waste generated by students and staff, the education sector's emissions and resource use are significant. According to a recent study by Reuters, 103 campus power plants at 93 universities emitted 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, the equivalent of 1.1 million cars, according to EIA data. 


It goes without saying that they influence the next generation of leaders. That’s why staying focused on the benefits of sustainability in higher education can be something we all think about. Even if we are not in school today, we may have children who are, or we may be involved as donors at our alma maters.  


ADVantages of Sustainability for Higher Education Institutions

Besides the obvious environmental advantages, sustainability provides several other direct benefits that affect university culture and the bottom line.


1. Healthier Buildings

We spend nearly 90% of our time indoors — at colleges and universities, it could be in university housing, in the classroom, in labs, for sports practice, and studying. Known to increase productivity, green buildings are better positioned to fight against asthma, allergies, depression, and stress. 

2. Cost Savings

Sustainable practices lead to reduced energy and resource consumption, resulting in lower expenses — LEED-certified buildings have 14% lower operational costs than their conventional counterparts. Funds saved can be reinvested into education and research. 

3. Engaging Stakeholders

An increasing number of students prioritize sustainability when choosing a college. In fact, a survey by The Princeton Review found that 75% of prospective students consider sustainability when deciding which colleges to apply to. Universities that demonstrate a commitment to the environment are more likely to attract a larger pool of students, allowing them to be more selective. Similar to donors and investors in other sectors, sustainability attracts funding. Alums are more likely to support their alma mater when they see it taking steps to protect the planet. 


Rating Systems for Colleges — LEED and Beyond

So, how do universities show that they are sustainable? There are two main strategies.


First, individual buildings can be certified under existing programs like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. This is a great way to implement sustainable strategies piece by piece as new buildings are constructed or during major renovation projects. To date, there are over 9,000 LEED-certified and registered building projects covering over 1 billion square feet, among which are several Emerald projects. However, LEED is only for buildings and doesn't account for the other far-ranging operations in running a higher education organization.


This is where the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) comes in. STARS is managed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and looks at institutions as a whole to assess their overall sustainability performance across various categories.


The primary categories of STARS are academics, engagement, operations, planning & administration, and innovation & leadership. Meeting criteria in each category provides points, which are combined into a total score that correlates with a level of recognition — bronze to gold.

Both LEED and STARS ratings are great ways for colleges to track their annual sustainability progress and quantify efforts. Additionally, they are some of the best ways to publicize sustainability progress as they provide legitimacy to a college's claims.


How Colleges Can Make an Impact on Sustainability

So, how does a higher education institution reach for the STARS (pun intended)? Let’s break it down:


Ongoing Operations

Colleges can implement energy-efficient systems, develop recycling programs, and adopt sustainable transportation options. These initiatives can significantly reduce a college's resource use.


For example, Emerald's Cuyahoga Community College project achieved LEED certification. The college's renovated Public Safety Training Center had a 25% reduction in energy use and a 33% reduction in water use. These reductions directly translate to a smaller carbon footprint and lower operating costs.



Sustainability isn't just about facilities; it's also about educating students on the benefits of sustainability and how they can get involved. Many colleges are incorporating sustainability into their curricula and offering degrees in environmental studies and related fields. This equips students with the knowledge and skills to address environmental challenges.


Investing in Long-term Projects

Actively investing in large-scale sustainability initiatives can drive continual improvements. For example, multi-year programs to develop renewable energy projects, fund green building construction, and improve sustainability research have delayed returns yet are critical to creating a sustainable college campus. This investment not only benefits the environment but also generates reputational and financial incentives that are realized over several decades.


Investing Endowments Sustainably

Many universities have significant endowments, which are typically invested — the 678 universities that took part in the 2022 NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments have assets totaling over 800 billion dollars. Just like in the world of business, colleges need to pay attention to what businesses they support with their investments. That’s why we see schools signing up to divest from fossil fuels. 


Yet, a commitment to planetary health isn’t the only motivation. Investing in high-ranking ESG or sustainably conscious companies means investing in companies with a higher chance of long-term financial success. That means sustainability in financial terms too. 


How Emerald Can Help — Know Your Baseline

Universities are large organizations, and knowing where to effectively allocate time and resources to improve sustainability isn't easy. That's where Emerald Built Environments comes in. We guide our clients through the process from start to finish to facilitate the sustainable operations of buildings and campuses.


For college students, parents, alums, or faculty, we recommend starting with our Sustainability Survey to learn how sustainable your college already is and how it can improve. Upon completing the survey, we generate a customized report that provides baseline data with an overall sustainability score that is broken down into six categories: transportation, outdoors, amenities, indoors, energy, and dorms and dining halls. The report discusses the role each category plays in sustainability and general recommendations on where improvements can be made.


Having this data is the first step towards making your school more sustainable. Take the survey today!


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