Cents and Sustainability

On dozens of campuses, students vote for small fee increases intended to generate money for environmental plans.
May 18, 2007

As the green campus movement continues to sprout, it’s not just administrators who are pledging to spend bucks on energy-efficient buildings and renewable resources.

Students at a growing number of colleges are voting to increase their own fees to start environmental sustainability funds. It's a notable change from the usual student fee hikes that pay for the likes of gym memberships and social clubs.

At least 14 campuses in the United States and four in Canada have passed "green fee" votes during their spring terms, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The list includes some of the usual suspects -- Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley -- as well as some smaller colleges.

Most plans call for students to put an extra $10 to $25 a year apiece into a fund -- managed by a committee of students, faculty and staff -- that supports purchasing renewable energy or decreasing carbon emissions.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the sustainability association, said the votes are a popular way for students to demonstrate widespread support for green investments without having to beg and plead for support. Often times, he said, administrators have already told student leaders that the university funds aren't there.

"People have seen that it's a pretty effective way for students to make a huge difference in the reduction of a college's environmental impact," Dautremont-Smith said. "It's easy in some ways, but not an insignificant pledge. Every school we've seen hold the vote, it passes, usually by a significant amount."

At Oregon State University, for instance, 7 in 10 students voted earlier this month to up to an $8.50 fee hike that would probably generate enough revenue to offset all electricity consumed by the university through the purchase renewable energy credits. The university is powered primarily by coal, and the fee would allow Oregon State to begin soliciting bids from renewable energy providers -- most likely leading to wind power purchases.

The Oregon State Board of Higher Education still must approve the fee increase, which would begin this fall. Brandon Trelstad, Oregon State's campus sustainability coordinator, who was an adviser on the student-run green free campaign, said he expects little resistance from the governing board.

He and others raised the concern that some students will view the relatively small green fee with indifference or a sense of mission completed.

"There's the risk that they will say, 'Well, we're funding this, so we can do whatever now,' " Trelstad said. "The beauty of the fee is if campus energy consumption goes up dramatically, so will the fee the next year if we want to continue to offset 100 percent of Oregon State's consumption."

In Tennessee, students at a majority of public universities have voted in favor of the green fees. Austin Peay State University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga passed $10 per student per semester hikes, and the University of Memphis passed a plan that would likely lead to the same fee increase.

The blueprint in the recently passed votes is for half of the money to go toward purchasing renewable energy and half to support energy sustainability projects, said Brandon Armstrong, a former Tennessee student who helped organize the campaigns through a group that advocates clean energy choices. Armstrong said that because the funds are managed in part by students, there's a greater feeling of control by those who helped set up the votes.

The same applies in Florida, said Jason Misner, a professional campus organizer. Students at the University of Florida, who passed a 50- to 75-cent per credit hour fee hike (which means about $14 per year), would be able to give spending suggestions to student representatives on the fund management committee. The proposal says the money would go strictly toward financial projects that would reduce campus energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. If approved by Florida's Board of Trustees, the fee is expected to raise roughly $645,000 a year.

Misner said several other universities in the system are interested in adopting their own fee increases.

Some campuses also offer optional student fees so that students, as an example, can buy renewable energy credits for their residence halls, Dautremont-Smith said.

The passage of student fee increases often dovetails with a college's pledge to go green. Oregon State's president signed the American Colleges and University President Climate Commitment -- calling for the campus to create a plan to offset all carbon use with renewable energy purchases -- around the same time that the student vote took place. The university is also pushing alumni, faculty and staff to donate to the student fund.

Dautremont-Smith said in a few cases colleges are matching some the funds raised by students. But he'd like to see that as a more common arrangement.


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