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These Colleges Get An A+ in Sustainability

August 26, 2019

Nearly two-thirds of prospective students say a college's commitment to the environment influences their decision to apply to or attend the school. But which colleges are the most committed?

Colby College, Dickinson College, Sterling College, Middlebury College, and the College of the Atlantic are the top five baccalaureate colleges for sustainability, according to new annual rankings released today by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

Among universities that also award doctoral degrees, the top sustainability leaders are Stanford, the University of California Irvine, the University of New Hampshire, Colorado State University, and the University of Connecticut.

The AASHE rankings recognize leaders in 17 areas, ranging from buildings to curriculum. Topping the energy category are Thompson Rivers University, Stanford University, American University, University of New Hampshire, and the University of South Florida.

Colleges and universities that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability are encouraged to participate in Energy Efficiency Day and issue a proclimation recognizing the value of reducing energy waste.

We looked at four schools that scored highly on several national reports, including AASHE’s new report and the Princeton Review’s 2018 Top 50 Green Colleges list that is based on academic offerings, campus policies, initiatives, activities, and career preparation. 

Here’s what representatives from some of the top schools have to say about university sustainability, energy use, and student efforts to make their communities greener.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland | St Mary’s City, MD | 1,572 students:

“We have a mantra called the St. Mary’s Way: ‘where people respect the natural environment and the tradition of tolerance, which is the heritage of this place,’” says Thomas Brewer, environmental health and safety coordinator at St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s was ranked the fifth greenest college by The Princeton Review. It boasts several intense sustainability initiatives, such as a pledge to go carbon neutral by 2020 and a waste-free campus program. The college has been replacing traditional lighting with LEDs, and many housing units couple these lights with motion sensors that reduce lighting to 10% when not in use.  

What’s next? Efficiency. “We would like to improve two of the largest consumers of energy on campus: fume hoods and swimming pools,” says Brewer. St. Mary’s plans to improve fume hood exhaust efficiency through independent flow metering valves, and to install pool covers to decrease the evaporation rate and maintain water temperature.



Dickinson College | Carlisle, PA | 2,399 students:

“[Campus sustainability] is a long and collaborative process built on teamwork and relationships,” says Lindsey Lyons, assistant director, Center for Sustainability Education at Dickinson College. Starting in 2019, all students at Dickinson will need to take a sustainability course as part of its general degree requirements.  

Dickinson ranked fourth on Princeton Review’s list, and was a top performer in AASHE’s campus engagement, curriculum, and research categories. It was also recognized by AASHE as the second overall top performer for baccalaureate institutions.

Dickinson recently launched its Energy Dashboard, which monitors the energy use of more than 20 campus buildings in real time with the goal of educating Dickinsonians about energy conservation. The data are available at two on-campus locations and online. Through the dashboard, Dickinson residence halls compete against one another for the greatest reduction in energy consumption. Alerts can be set to help Dickinson meet its energy targets, and the software also allows the college’s sustainability office to access daily, weekly, or yearly trends in electricity use.

Lyons is also excited to announce that Dickinson will meet its target of driving net emissions down to zero this year. “[Sustainability is a] win-win-win” says Lyons —“savings for the college, learning for the students, and reduction in carbon emissions for the planet.”

University of Vermont | Burlington, VT | 11,328 students

“Student leadership has been a key factor,” says Gioia Thompson, sustainability director for UVM. She cites student action as an instigator for several initiatives, including the purchase of 100% renewable electricity (since 2015), the ending of bottled water sales, and getting sustainability certified custodial products. UVM’s Student Government Association calculates the carbon emissions associated with campus buildings and university club travel, and it purchases carbon offsets out of its own budget. 

UVM ranked third on the Princeton review’s list, and was an AASHE top performer in the energy category.

UVM’s energy efficiency efforts began in the 1990s. “The big story has been the upgrades to central utility infrastructure and investment in central chilled water system, resulting in improved efficiency overall, as well as improved comfort,” says Thompson. “Through significant investment in energy efficiency improvements and LEED-certified buildings, UVM used 6% less total energy (MMBTUs) in 2014 than in 2007. Meanwhile, building space increased 7% and population increased 10%. Total GHG emissions dropped 41% between 2007-2017 as a result of energy efficiency and renewable electricity. “

In July 2019, UVM announced that its new supercomputer involves state-of-the-art processors that are extremely energy efficient, using 20 times less electricity than normal server processors.

What advice does UVM have for other colleges trying to meet energy goals? Update them. Thompson explains that most environmental goals were set a decade ago, under the assumption that there would be ongoing federal support for environment- and climate change-related initiatives. “Ten years later, the global, national, regional and local context has changed, and some of these goals need revisiting,’ she says.

Currently, UVM is working on low-carbon transportation projects and improving both campus and community resilience in the face of increasingly severe weather events. 

College of the Atlantic | Bar Harbor, ME | 332 students:

The College of the Atlantic ranked first on Princeton Review’s list and was recognized as a top performer in AASHE’s curriculum, energy, and grounds categories. It was the fifth overall top performer among baccalaureate institutions, and received recognition for its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) data accuracy.

COA was the first college to go carbon neutral in 2007, and has committed to becoming fossil-fuel free by 2030. In its steps towards achieving this goal, COA has undergone a full energy audit of its campus and is currently renovating its buildings to increase efficiency and comfort. This has involved switching from fossil fuel-based heating sources to electric heat pumps and carbon-neutral fuels, and encouraging sustainable transportation by installing electric vehicle charging points. COA recently broke ground on a new, super energy-efficient Center for Human Ecology.

We spoke with Laura Berry and Spencer Gray of COA’s Community Energy Center. “Energy efficiency has been one of our biggest factors in working towards a sustainable, fossil fuel-free campus,” says Berry.  “We live in a cold, northern climate, and [sustainable heating] will always be our biggest challenge. Much of our work aims at decreasing our heating load through air sealing, insulation, and tightening our building envelopes in order to improve our building efficiency and [increase] comfort for students, faculty, and staff.”

We asked what advice COA had for other universities reaching towards a greener campus. Her answer? Energy efficiency, fearlessness, and student involvement. “’Carbon neutrality’ doesn’t have to mean building multi-million dollar, LEED-certified academic buildings or massive solar arrays on campus,” Berry says. “The biggest impact on carbon emissions can come from the least flashy changes, like building renovations, insulation, and weather stripping, that actually decrease energy use, rather than simply offset it.”

“Colleges and universities are the places to experiment and lead through innovative policies and programs. Don’t be afraid to try something new,” Berry says. She adds that student involvement is key to a sustainable campus: “Integrate students into sustainability planning and campus operations -- beyond just internships or volunteering at an Earth Day festival. Empower students to help lead the way towards decreasing campus carbon emissions, and they’ll probably surprise you with their creativity and dedication to addressing climate change.”

Pictured Below: Sustainability initiatives at the College of the Atlantic


But what’s a college student to do?

Large-scale efforts are game-changers for campus sustainability, but what can individual students do on their own? Thomas Brewer of St. Mary’s College, Gioia Thompson of UVM, and Laura Berry of COA share how incoming students can make their campus greener:  

St. Mary’s College: “Behavior modification is one of the best ways for students to increase energy efficiency and sustainability on campus,” Brewer says. This includes taking shorter showers, turning off lights, using less single-use plastics, recycling, and composting.

University of Vermont: “Walk, bike, scooter, or skate—use your own power,” says Thompson. She also advises that students share large appliances, like mini-fridges, and work to reduce the waste they create. Students should also ask their professors about incorporating climate change topics into the curriculum, when appropriate.

College of the Atlantic: “Get involved and take the lead!” says Berry.  “Go to your sustainability department and ask how you can help with on-campus programs, and find out what support there is for students to do sustainability projects. Get together with other like-minded students to start a dorm composting system, grow a community garden plot, or organize a student competition to decrease energy use in the dorms. And, of course, work through student groups and committees to push your college or university to go even further on their climate commitments.”

For more tips, visit the Shrink Your Dorm Print campaign online at

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