Colleges are considered bastions of progressive and free thought, and it’s almost a matter of course that they’d be expected to be exemplars of environmental conscientiousness as well. Advances that allow schools to produce less waste and leave smaller footprints, from sustainable building practices to offering college courses online to reduce costs, are indeed growing more common across the country. However, despite such developments and the easy assumption that colleges will lead the way in sustainable practices, actual numbers reflect a less than perfect reality.

Judy Walton of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) suggests “We feel that campuses have a special duty, and I think they see it as well [because]…[t]hey’re training the next generation.” Concepts of sustainability on college campuses have moved from the early days of simple recycling to more recent efforts to compost and implement solar and other alternative power systems. However, these efforts did not appear on their own.

In 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Sustainability Act, which included provisions for a summit on sustainability and a university sustainability grant program. The summit meeting is meant to bring together “higher education sustainability experts, federal agency staff, and business leaders to identify best practices in sustainability and opportunities for collaboration to expand sustainable operations and academic programs.” The grant program supplies “competitive grants to colleges and universities to establish sustainability research programs, such as developing new alternative energy sources. It also allows schools to implement sustainability practices on campus.”

This legislation also resulted in the formation of the AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS). This program rates colleges’ and other institutions’ sustainability in terms of buildings, climate, dining services, energy consumption, grounds, purchasing, transportation, waste, and water use. Currently the program includes 250 American and nearly 25 Canadian higher education institutions. In 2011, of 322 schools assessed, 56 percent received “B” grades overall, while a mere 11 percent made the “A” grade.

However, problems with colleges’ sustainability aren’t necessarily with the schools’ efforts alone, but demonstrate that a concentrated effort must be made by all interested parties. Parents, students, alumni, and administrators all play roles in sustainability on campus. Educating the youth of today is a necessity and means teaching honesty and transparency, along with sustainability practices on campus. As the examples we’ve conjured have shown, there have been tangible applications of environmentally-sustainable efforts of varying degrees. Moving forward, comparing and contrasting between these applications and finding out which processes work and which don’t will be instrumental in scaling the pilot efforts which we have described.

 This is a guest post by Marina Salsbury who planned on becoming a teacher, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She currently writes on a variety of topics, but always seems to veer back to education-related articles.