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Franklin Pierce University’s science building, Marcucella Hall, includes a publicly accessible greenhouse. Students can request a free basil plant for their dorm rooms.

Franklin Pierce University

While campus sustainability efforts have steadily grown over recent decades, COVID caused a pause at many institutions.

On the one hand, closures had a positive impact on energy usage. “You can create a net-zero campus pretty easily by just shutting it down,” quips Jay Antle, executive director of the Center for Sustainability and a history professor at Johnson County Community College, in Kansas. “The solar on the rooftop of one building generated so much power, we sold energy back to the grid as opposed to having to use it.”

Good and green, but not for the right reasons.

Disrupted supply chains frequently left dining programs in a pickle. “I’ve had people tell me you could order hamburgers and the order would come in and it was chicken breast,” says Robert Nelson, chief executive officer at NACUFS, the National Association of College & University Food Services.

The transition to takeout only resulted in many campuses getting flak for containers used. Nelson recalls how one institution with a ban on Styrofoam ordered a product that met sustainability guidelines, but Styrofoam got delivered instead. “Within minutes the chancellor was calling, saying, ‘What are you doing with Styrofoam on campus?’ People had to take whatever they could get.”

Staffing and logistical issues, along with food and supply delivery, became the focus. “Across many college campuses, sustainability took a back seat,” Nelson says. Now campuses have begun refocusing on sustainability.

The majority (59 percent) of 2,164 undergraduates from 114 colleges and universities surveyed in early December would classify their institutions as being “somewhat” environmentally sustainable—taking into account experiences with and knowledge of areas such as dining, transportation, cleaning practices, recycling/waste management, water use, energy use, grounds care and new construction. Fewer than one-quarter of students rate their college as very sustainable, while 16 percent say it’s not too sustainable and 2 percent not at all sustainable. The data come from a Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan.

Student perceptions, of course, are just that.

But the one-quarter finding matches up with how Julian Dautremont of AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, describes higher ed’s commitment. When he co-founded the organization in 2004, it had 35 member campuses—which grew quickly to 200 and peaked in 2012 at about 1,200. Now the number sits at about 800, with three-quarters or more being colleges and universities. Dautremont, who served as associate director of AASHE for five years and is currently director of programs, estimates that maybe one in four colleges has fairly strong sustainability commitments and nearly all of the rest are doing something. “Not many campuses are doing absolutely nothing,” but programs may be more ad hoc, with “a sustainability project here and there.” A good indicator of sustainability as a priority is having a designated person being paid to improve sustainability performance. “Otherwise, it’s all people who have other jobs,” he says.

Other highlights of the survey, which also asked about student experiences and behaviors, include that:

  • Forty-five percent considered environmental sustainability in their college enrollment decision, although only 12 percent say it also influenced their choice of college.
  • Eighty-five percent say it’s at least somewhat important for their campus to prioritize sustainability, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans saying it’s very important, 52 percent versus 24 percent.
  • Eight in 10 respondents report using refillable water bottles, and more than three-quarters are recycling. Of the 10 possible green behaviors listed, six are being done by between 22 percent and 52 percent of respondents, with the remaining two behaviors at 14 percent and 7 percent.
  • Eighty-one percent are at least somewhat worried about climate change, while 61 percent of students whose colleges have not already divested from fossil fuels would consider, or would definitely consider, getting involved to persuade their institution to do so. Half of the full sample want their institution to prioritize sustainable energy use and sources.

Following is a closer look at how students feel about sustainability efforts and responsibilities, as well as what actions they have taken or would take.

Student Commitment Levels

While only slightly more than one in 10 Student Voice respondents says sustainability at their college actually affected their choice of institution, colleges are touting green efforts to prospective students. The mere existence of The Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges, the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings and AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index provides evidence that sharing sustainability efforts is deemed a must.

And in a 2022 Forrester Consulting report developed with Johnson Controls—which highlighted findings from campus sustainability strategy leaders at 105 institutions (a subset of 2,348 global leaders surveyed)—attracting students who enroll based on the institution’s sustainability values is the biggest driver of sustainability as a priority.

“Student interest is always the predominant factor. That is why this whole field of work exits, because students care,” says Dautremont.

Antle, who has served for several years on the AASHE board, says that “for folks trying to market their institutions, it’s important to be praising and talking about the work they are doing—getting into meaningful recycling, reducing the amount of things you buy, making sure procurement is buying stuff with recycled content,” he says. “They should celebrate it and market that they’re engaging in it.”

One indication that a student is committed to sustainability involves taking courses on related issues and choosing related topics for papers and projects, as 46 percent of Student Voice respondents have done.

Johnson County Community College, which has signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment along with hundreds of other institutions since 2006, offers workshops to help faculty across academic disciplines integrate sustainability content into their courses, explains Antle. For about a decade, sculpture class students there have produced public art displays that highlight sustainability-related concerns while reusing campus materials.

A sculpture made of recycled plastic bags outside an academic building. The sculpture looks a lot like a piece of knitting on large wooden knitting needles.“Students across many non–sustainability and environmental science majors are thinking about environmental and sustainability issues,” says Ken Lindeman, a professor of ocean engineering and marine sciences as well as the sustainability manager at Florida Institute of Technology. One indication is the popularity of the university’s sustainability minor. “Over 10 years, we’ve graduated students in that minor from over 30 different majors from all colleges on campus,” he says. “The thing about this silo is that it’s not vertical, it’s horizontal. It cuts across all these other disciplines.”

Student involvement in sustainability initiatives is crucial at resource-limited institutions such as his, where one-third of the 45 members of the sustainability council are students, related topics are frequent selections for senior research projects and paid internships get students engaged in work such as building sustainability plans in cities around the region, Lindeman explains.

In a sustainability projects elective course at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, “all the students want to know what they can do,” says Joshua Cline, an adjunct professor who teaches the course, along with a seminar for juniors and a senior capstone. “They’re all overwhelmed, and they think the world is ending, so they want concrete things to do. The class meets that need. If I was in charge, I’d have five semesters of it.”

In the Will Climate Change Your Life? course Cline also teaches at New England College, he makes the issue of climate change real for students by, for example, covering how climate change is impacting the availability of everyday items. “We spend a week on the increase in price on coffee, beer and vegetables,” he says. “Coffee and beer are dear to their hearts.” While about half the students get “completely depressed,” the other half get fired up about actions they can take to help.

A survey Cline conducts each semester tends to show that student belief in the dangers of climate change is about nine in 10, compared to a national average of about three-quarters of Americans, as tracked annually by the Yale Climate Opinion Maps project. Yet fewer than half of students actually think they will be harmed by it. “If it is not a perceived risk, then action is not likely to happen,” he says. Because New England is considered a climate haven, where the impacts of climate change aren’t that bad, risk perception in the area tends to be low, Cline adds.

In general, knowledge sways how students feel about climate change. Four in 10 of the full Student Voice survey sample are very worried about climate change, but that number doubles when filtered by the 279 students who follow news about climate change very closely. Of the 232 who don’t follow such news at all, only 10 percent are very worried.

“The impacts are no longer going to happen in decades. Things are happening now,” says Dautremont, citing wildfires and stronger hurricanes.

In Antle’s experience, “folks coming out of high school now are increasingly angry and despondent about it.”

Seventy-one percent of the Student Voice survey respondents believe the U.S. government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. That sentiment jumps to 89 percent for those who are very worried about climate change (n=824).

How much are students willing to get involved in the cause via demands about institutional finances? Nearly seven in 10 survey respondents have already been or would at least consider working to persuade their colleges to divest from fossil fuels.

“It’s exciting to imagine there’s that much support for divestment,” says Dautremont, adding that divestment “is one of the movements on campus related to sustainability that has really taken off the last decade or so.” Next-step efforts at some institutions have involved students asking their colleges not to accept research partnerships or other funds from fossil fuel companies, he says.

About the same percentage of students—74 percent—have been or would consider getting involved in a local effort to persuade their college town or hometown to adopt more sustainable practices; 30 percent of respondents identify their college’s broader community as not too or not at all committed to sustainability.

Visibility of Sustainability

About one in five Student Voice respondents is aware of their college having signed a net-zero carbon emissions pledge—and about one in five reports their college has not signed one. The other six in 10 simply don’t know, with students at public colleges 18 percentage points more likely than those at private colleges to be not sure.

Being able to make such a pledge “typically comes down to funding availability,” says Lindeman of Florida Tech.

Many signs of sustainability initiatives are more obvious to students across campus, with the two most visible indications, out of 14 listed in the survey, being water bottle refill stations and recycling bins next to trash cans, at 85 percent each. From there, the next most visible indication is a bike or scooter borrowing program, noticed by 35 percent of respondents.

One respondent, from a public university in Ohio, would like to see compost bins next to recycling bins. “They are difficult to locate and are never visible for students to use, which makes composting a nonexisting factor in students’ minds,” the student commented.

In terms of campuswide events centered around reducing waste, which about one in four respondents is aware of, that could include “green move-out” events such as what Florida Tech organizes so that unwanted student furnishings can be distributed to local nonprofits, Lindeman says.

A student at a public North Carolina university noted the need for a “spring cleaning program that is advertised well … [and] prevents everyone filling up the dumpsters at the end of the year.”

Because dining is an area ripe for multiple sustainability initiatives, the survey included a separate question asking about awareness of six possible actions being taken.

Vegetarian food options appear to be most common, with two-thirds of survey respondents aware of them. Nelson from NACUFS suspects the actual percentage is higher, as people not looking for something may not be aware of it. Also, in the many campus dining tours he’s done in the past year, he noticed all had this option. Although plant-based food offerings are a current big focus in collegiate dining, awareness of vegan offerings, at 56 percent, seems like it could be accurate, he says.

To reduce meat consumption and lower their carbon footprint, Dautremont is seeing campuses experiment with making ground mushrooms perhaps 40 percent of the ingredients in beef burgers.

Nearly half of students are aware of compost/food waste bins within dining programs. At Franklin Pierce, visible from the cafeteria are a student-built raised bed garden and three-bay compost bin. While the garden doesn’t produce enough to feed a campus full of students daily, Cline says that dining provider Sodexo uses potatoes, carrots, beans and onions grown for a fall harvest dinner.

Several survey respondents call for plastic-free utensils, straws and packaging, as well as the ability to use their own containers for takeout. At one private New York university, a student expressed frustration that “in the absence of enough staff to wash dishes at certain dining halls, many use single-use plastics.”

Packaging waste reduction efforts can result in impressive numbers. The 100 percent reusable to-go program at Florida Tech’s main dining hall, for example, is reducing waste by 200,000 containers per year.

Food waste is indeed a common concern, survey comments show. “Why throw out so much food every night?” asked one student at a public university in California. “It’s shameful and a sign of greed that so much is thrown out as opposed to being given to hardworking dining hall employees.”

NACUFS developed a dining sustainability guide that includes best practices, with purchase of the guide including an additional lesson plan book for training staff on sustainable dining storytelling. The plans can be used for 30- or 60-minute trainings as well as quick 15-minute preshift meetings, Nelson says. For example, along with signs indicating locally grown or produced foods, staff members can share information about local farms and other partnerships in conversation with students. “There’s a lot being done, and there’s a lot more we need to do,” Nelson says.

Personal Actions and Habits

Many students recognize that they shoulder at least some responsibility to adopt sustainable practices, with 46 percent of survey respondents saying institutions and individuals should have equal responsibility and 5 percent believing individuals should bear most of it.

Of 10 possible environmentally friendly actions they might take, just 3 percent of respondents say they do none of them. As noted above, eight in 10 use refillable water bottles and more than three-quarters recycle.

Unfortunately, Cline explains to students and others, “recycling is probably one of the least effective actions that can be taken. [Students think] ‘I take a bottle and put it in a box, and I feel like I’ve had some impact on an issue that’s global.’ No one has talked to them about this.” For example, only 8 percent of plastic has ever been recycled, he’ll say.

Just a small percentage of students have any concrete knowledge of what actions they should take, Cline adds. “It is more social media hype from unknown sources.”

Just two other actions—1) walking, biking or taking public transit when possible, and 2) shopping with reusable bags—are practiced by at least half of students surveyed. It’s not uncommon for students to “recycle, but then they’ll get in the car to drive from their dorm to the cafeteria, when it’s 1.5 minutes to get from some dorms to the cafe,” says Cline.

He sees promise, however, in the finding that one in four students discusses sustainability with friends. “Data show that if you talk about it, there’s more action.”

LGBTQIA+ students surveyed are more likely than their straight peers to say they engage in each of the 10 practices listed. While research on the connections between sexual identities and activism is still emerging, a 2018 analysis of existing studies highlights how sexual minorities are significantly more likely to engage in four types of social movements than heterosexuals: LGBT rights, peace, environmentalism and economic inequality.

One detrimental action students may take—printing out papers and other assignments, done always by 9 percent of students and sometimes by 36 percent—is one they might have no control over. As several respondents noted, professor requirements sometimes force a Control-P keyboard strike.

“Professors need to stop making it mandatory for students to print out their reading and writing assignments,” wrote one student at a private college in Washington State. “Seriously. They need to stop.” Another student, at a private university in Pennsylvania, has even been required to print out essays for the peer-review process. Just in case, the student suggested some tools professors could use instead—like Google Docs.

Institutional Ideas for Action

Student advocacy and actions may drive many campus sustainability efforts, but half of survey respondents believe the institution should have more of the responsibility in adopting sustainable practices. “This is a place where the institution has got to have leadership,” says Dautremont. “You can’t just shove it off on students.” Institution-level efforts have a large impact on what it’s even possible for students to do themselves.

“I’m happy to see … very few people said, ‘It’s all up to me,’” Antle says. “While people certainly should live by their values, living by their values isn’t going to change the electrical grid.”

When it comes to areas like energy use and sources—the category, out of eight listed, that the most students believe needs to be more sustainable at their college—meaningful progress has yet to be made, at least in Cline’s opinion. “We’ve been talking about this for 50 years,” he says. “Hype and activity has [sic] grown, but so little has been done by most of these universities. From my perspective, the ones doing it are the ones that have the money to do it.” A switchover to a more sustainable energy source might result in cost savings, but 20 years down the line, he adds. “A teeny liberal arts college can’t make that investment.”

At Franklin Pierce, Cline notes, a recent solar project was possible only because it was a broader community effort, at a scale that allowed for no up-front cost.

Still, according to the Forrester Consulting report, one in five campus sustainability leader survey respondents plans to reduce energy consumption across the entire institution by at least 50 percent.

For the next two biggest categories in need of more efforts, students identify waste management and food and dining.

Nelson of NACUFS views dining as capable of playing a lead role in campus sustainability. “They can be the ones that are raising the flag and communicating to senior executives on the role that dining is playing in sustainability. It’s all about constant improvement, and we all have places we can improve. We all need to work together.”

At a lot of colleges, students are willing to assist financially with institution-level sustainability efforts via a green fee. The fee, often put in place after students have asked for it or their governing board creates it, is usually $1 per credit hour, says Antle, whose college has one. “Community college students are less involved in campus activities—they just don’t have time. Many students were very happy when asked for a green fee.”

The money goes into a fund specifically for sustainability projects, and students at Johnson County play a significant role in determining how it’s spent, he adds.

“These are issues students do care about,” says Antle. “This is their future. Institutions of higher education need to not only provide career and intellectual paths for students, but also provide hopeful paths to students—for a future with a planet worth living on.”

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