A recent Times Higher Education report suggests that while U.S. universities and colleges continue to lead the world in innovation and impact, many fall behind in terms of their environmental impact. Consequently, the higher education sector in the U.S. has an opportunity—and—obligation to become more sustainable.
This article examines the challenges that many U.S. colleges and universities encounter in their transition towards greater sustainability, and explores ideas and opportunities for improved sustainability results.
Climate change and the energy transition have become critical issues in higher education. While U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly committed to environmental goals, limited resources, and competing priorities make it difficult to turn commitments into action.
1. Many U.S. colleges and universities grapple with other, sometimes overwhelming, financial demands.
The transition to sustainability requires hefty investments in infrastructure upgrades, renewable energy systems, and smart building technologies.
That’s a problem.
Several U.S. colleges and universities are facing a perfect storm of financial obstacles, including:
Declining enrollment: Fewer students mean shrinking revenue streams. Higher education enrollment has been declining since 2010 —with the pandemic resulting in the steepest decline from 2019 to 2021. Undergraduate enrollment was down to 15.4 million in 2021, representing a 21% decline from the previous year. NSCRC research estimates enrollment was even lower in spring 2023, down to 14.1 million. In addition to COVID, staggering tuition costs and a shrinking birth rate in the U.S. are generally cited as the key factors driving the decline. A new report says that rising tuition costs, mounting student debt, and emerging college alternatives mean that enrollment will likely continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
Deferred Maintenance: The collective price tag for deferred maintenance (or ‘capital renewal’) has soared into the billions for U.S. college campuses. For example, the cost per gross square foot for capital repair and replacement surged from $103 in 2022 to over $133 in 2023, according to a report by Gordian. This means that every one million square feet of existing buildings will necessitate more than $133 million for renewal. It's important to note that the costs incurred by these institutions ultimately find their way to students through tuition and fees. Which, again, affects enrolment.
Diminishing Endowments: The average return for all college endowments in fiscal 2022 was negative 8%, mainly due to rising inflation in the U.S. Some of the richest U.S. universities posted sluggish returns again in 2023, with a majority of the top 20 endowments earning returns of less than 5%.
Public Confidence Crisis: Colleges and universities face a worrisome decline in public confidence. Trust in higher education has been eroding for the past eight years. A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 36% of Americans have either a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in higher education. New reporting on admission scandals, racism, tuition costs, and student debt is worsening the situation. The decline in trust in higher ed has potentially far-reaching consequences, including a significant impact on institutions’ funding, enrollment, and community interactions.
These financial challenges cut across the spectrum, affecting public and private colleges and small and large institutions. While Pandemic relief funding provided a lifeline for a few years, it is now running dry. As costs continue to grow faster than revenues, many U.S. colleges and universities simply lack the funds needed to become more sustainable.
2. Many U.S. colleges and universities aren’t equipped to provide the comprehensive climate curriculum needed to inspire climate action.
Students in the U.S. realize that climate change will be a significant issue in their lifetime. It will affect where they live, how they work, and their overall quality of life. As a result, they’re depending on higher education to provide comprehensive climate education and tools needed to adapt to—and ultimately take action against—a warming world.
Unfortunately, while American climate scientists are often at the forefront of their research, there's also a significant number of climate skeptics in the U.S. As a result, university administrators campaigning for sustainability projects often encounter resistance. Progress is being made in some states, but generally, students are not learning enough about climate science to give them the knowledge and tools they need to become more sustainable.
1. Establish Clear Goals
The obvious place to start is to establish specific and time-bound goals for all sustainability efforts. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. The range of sustainability goals is expanding rapidly. Valuable references for overall sustainability goals include the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which define 17 specific goals ranging from clean water to gender equality. The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) is customized specifically for higher education in North America and outlines 70 options for setting and tracking sustainability efforts. Several organizations, such as Second Nature, PWC, and even the EPA, provide information and tools colleges can use to establish, track, and attain their sustainability goals.
Breaking down overall goals into specific categories can be helpful. Common goal categories include:
· Achieving carbon neutrality
· Advancing sustainability education and research
· Reducing energy costs
· Improving the community
2. Explore and Secure the Funds Needed to Upgrade Campus Facilities
Explore available federal, state, and municipal grants, rebates, and funding opportunities.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), gives tax-exempt colleges and universities access to the financial incentives and tax credits previously previously only available to taxable organizations.
Colleges and universities can now elect to receive a direct refund from the IRS for investing in renewable energy projects, clean energy vehicles, electric vehicle chargers, etc. These credits—ranging from 6% to 70%) can be used directly by institutions, or through a third party to support energy efficiency.
The IRA extended and expanded a broad range of tax incentives for investments that colleges and universities can now use to achieve their sustainability goals. Key incentives include:
Extending the clean energy Investment Tax Credit to offer a 30% credit for energy-efficient building construction, as well as qualifying wind, solar, energy storage, and other renewable energy projects.
Credits of up to 30% for the purchase of electric vehicles and 15% for hybrid vehicles. Total credit amounts are capped at $40,000 for heavy-weight and $7,500 for light-weight vehicles.)
Extending and expanding the Refueling Infrastructure Tax Credit for EV chargers
The EPA publishes a number of tools and resources that colleges can use to find and secure the incentives best suited to their needs.
3. Reduce Energy Costs and Increase Resilience
Universities contribute significantly to global warming through their energy production. Many have their own power plants to ensure reliable energy and reduce dependence on aging and underinvested electric grids. These university plants collectively emitted around 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, equivalent to 1.1 million cars, according to EIA data.
To address this issue, universities are increasingly adopting localized power grids, known as microgrids, to enhance energy reliability, reduce emissions, meet sustainability goals, and ensure power resiliency.
Microgrids, which operate both connected to and independently from the traditional grid, utilize distributed generators, batteries, and renewable sources. They help universities balance energy supply and demand within their boundaries, making them an attractive solution for institutions with self-contained infrastructure, long-term investments, continuous energy needs, and available space.
4. Electrify Campus Vehicles
Students across the U.S. are actively committed to a more sustainable electric future—and they expect their schools to support the energy transition. Fully one-third of Gen Z vehicle owners surveyed by West Monroe report state that they own an electric vehicle, and 72% of Millennials plan to purchase an electric car for their next vehicle.
The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is progressing faster than anticipated. According to a recent EY analysis, EV sales will surpass all other engine types three years ahead of schedule. Campuses must prepare by offering convenient access to fast and reliable charging stations to support students, staff, guests, and electrified fleets. These EV charging stations serve as visible symbols of a school's commitment to a more sustainable future.
Despite challenges such as limited funding, strained resources, and aging infrastructure, there is positive news. Local, state, and federal funding incentives can significantly reduce the cost of acquiring charging stations. For instance, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides various funding opportunities through grants and finance programs. Currently, 63% of the country is eligible for rebates or incentives for EV charging networks.
5. Integrate Sustainability into the Curriculum
While cutting carbon emissions from campus operations is important, it may not be the best way for educators to make an impact on future generations. As teaching and research institutions, higher education has a key role in guiding society towards a more sustainable future. As such, universities have a responsibility to ensure that their graduates are educated about sustainability topics and understand how they can take action.
Research indicates that formal climate education can play a pivotal role in motivating students to move beyond climate anxiety to solutions and action. It can also equip them for careers in the thriving clean energy sector.
Integrating sustainability into the curriculum requires a long-term commitment and should involve students, faculty, administrators, and the local community. There are a number of ways to infuse sustainability into the curriculum. The most obvious approach is to establish dedicated sustainability courses—or majors—designed to elicit the practical strategies needed to effect positive change. A more holistic approach involves integrating sustainability concepts into all academic disciplines —embedding aspects of sustainability into every university course.
It's worth noting that a new report finds that while U.S. teachers generally favor incorporating sustainable development into their curriculum they lack the necessary support to do so. The report suggests that equipping teachers with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources needed to effectively teach sustainability should include workshops, collaborative learning communities, and hands-on involvement in both campus and local sustainability projects. Teacher training and guidance are available from resources like the UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development framework.
6. Cultivate a Culture of Sustainability on Campus
In addition to adding sustainability to the curriculum, colleges and universities should provide additional opportunities to to create a culture of sustainability. These can include supporting a variety of student and community volunteer programs such as:
Setting up recycling and composing stations across campus.
Organizing donation drives and second-hand markets.
Facilitating a bike rental/ride-share program.
Creating a community garden on campus.
Sustainability is not simply an objective but a collective journey. Success depends upon shared responsibility, innovative solutions and an unwavering commitment to research, education and behavior modification.
Universities play a critical role in advancing sustainability. Their place in society gives them a special opportunity to integrate sustainable practices into their communities, creating a positive impact for generations to come.