When people think of sustainability in higher education institutions, campus recycling programs and paper-saving digital classrooms often come to mind. Yet, many students entering universities today have higher expectations for their campuses to address global challenges like climate change.
Today’s most forward-thinking universities and colleges are developing sustainability programs that embed environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets and goals in their core strategy and mission. Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) certification is one way sustainable campuses transparently report how they embed sustainability into their curriculum, operations, and engagement activities.
Why Sustainability is Important in Higher Ed
Attracting students: According to an Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse Student Voice survey, 45% of students consider environmental sustainability in their college enrollment decision, 85% say it’s somewhat important for their campus to prioritize sustainability, and 81% are at least somewhat concerned about climate.
CO2 emissions: Large campuses and universities often supply their own power for campus energy. The US Energy Information Agency tracks the emissions of 103 campus energy plants and estimates they emitted 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in 2020, as much as 1.1 million cars. More than half of these campus plants performed worse than commercial utilities based on their CO2 per megawatt hour of power generated, reflecting their reliance on fuel oil, coal, and other carbon-intensive sources of energy.
Green job growth: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth for careers linked to environmental sustainability, reflecting the need for degree programs aimed at these careers. Examples include environmental scientists and engineers. In the renewable energy space, wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers are projected to show the fastest growth among all jobs for 2020 to 2030 at a 68% and 52% increase, respectively.
Sustainability trends are impacting more than just environment and energy-linked careers. They affect entire sectors, including finance, transportation, food, agriculture, and business management.
Student-led activism: For over a decade, students on campuses across the US have led fossil-fuel divestment campaigns encouraging their university endowments to divest from fossil fuels. In September 2023, New York University (NYU), a university with one of the largest private endowments of $5 billion, agreed to divest from fossil fuels based on student-led pressure. NYU joins other large universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, University of California, and many others.
How AASHE Certification Supports Higher Education Sustainability
Certification from a third-party organization such as AASHE can give credibility to universities’ sustainability programs.
Since 2005, AASHE has promoted sustainability in higher education by serving as a leading third-party certification for campus sustainability. It also serves its mission of “catalyzing higher education to lead the global sustainability transformation” by providing sustainability resources in a knowledge-sharing platform called the Campus Sustainability Hub, hosting an annual conference, and supporting partnerships and strategic alliances for its members. Today, over 900 AASHE members are across 48 US states and 20 countries.
According to its website, “AASHE defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods and a better world for all generations.”
The AASHE certification program assesses campuses based on their reported information for sustainability criteria, including:
- Student and public engagement
- Operations, including air and climate, energy, water and waste management
- Planning and Administration
- Innovation and Leadership
The universities submit their sustainability information report using the STARS reporting tool and technical manual. AASHE developed this system to enable higher education institutions to report effectively on an annual basis with a standardized format. This reported data used for ranking and benchmarking purposes by AASHE.
Universities and colleges are awarded a STARS ranking based on their score: Reporter, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. These rankings are based on a scoring methodology that awards points across the above reporting categories. A total of 100 points is possible, and the minimum number of points needed for inclusion in each of the medal ranks is as follows:
- Bronze: 25
- Silver: 45
- Gold: 65
- Platinum: 85
By participating in the ranking and benchmarking program, members can easily compare their sustainability initiatives with those of other universities in the Sustainable Campus Index or the STARS Benchmarking Tool. They can also communicate their performance by displaying their seal on their web pages and other marketing materials. Participation also grants them eligibility to publicly share their ranking in lists such as The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges.
Even more importantly, universities who report and earn a ranking using the STARS methodology say their efforts have led to sustainability improvements. Nine out of ten participants said STARS participation probably or led their institution to become more sustainable. This is because sustainability reporting not only demonstrates the current impact but also helps engage the management to undergo a planning process to develop targets and goals that lead to positive future impacts.
One example of a university that has consistently earned a Platinum rank for the past three years is Arizona State University (Tempe).
Arizona Tempe Achieves AASHE Platinum Ranking
Arizona State University (Tempe) (ASU) is part of the growing trend toward sustainability in higher education. Its AASHE certification helps it transparently demonstrate its impact.
In 2022, ASU ranked first in the US and sixth in the world for universities pursuing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It was the only university from the U.S. to rank in the top 10 on The Higher Education’s (THE) Impact Ranking 2022, which assessed a total of 1,400 universities around the world.
Serving a mission to reduce global poverty and hunger, promote gender equality, and develop clean water and energy solutions, ASU develops curricula, funds research, and engages in partnerships that further these goals. ASU is best known for its space exploration, health and well-being, sustainability, energy, and water initiatives.
Recognized for its innovation in Higher Education, ASU has outranked MIT and Stanford as number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Most Innovative Schools” for its digital solutions, campus accessibility, and accelerated degree programs.
AASHE has awarded ASU a Platinum rank, with a score of 91.1 out of 100 total points. ASU is one of just 12 other universities that have achieved a Platinum ranking. Having participated in AASHE’s certification program since 2011, ASU has consistently maintained a Gold or Platinum ranking from AASHE’s first version through its current version, 2.2. ASU’s ranking was updated in February 2023 and is valid through 2026.
Beneath every ranking, however, there are strong stories of strategic management, planning, and implementation that demonstrate how universities went from point A to point B. Weber State University’s Climate Action Plan is an excellent example of this.
Weber State University’s Climate Action Plan
A client of Atrius Sustainability, Weber State University (WSU) developed a Climate Action Plan with five main priorities for pursuing their CO2 emissions reduction goals:
- Make efficiency improvements first
- Electrify everything
- Source renewable energy
- Reinvest savings into a green fund
- Purchase offsets as a last resort
Using these priorities, the next step was to pair them with a tool that could help create transparency around the emissions data before, during, and after implementing their initiatives. They chose Atrius Sustainability to track and measure how well their programs and initiatives met their goals and report this performance to internal and external stakeholders.
WSU uses Atrius Sustainability’s energy management tool to track and monitor building energy consumption in real-time. The tool enables them to make data-driven decisions amidst fast-changing circumstances.
With the right tools and a transparent, consistent approach towards reducing their carbon emissions, WSU revised their initial 2050 goal for carbon neutrality by ten years to 2040.
What’s Holding Higher Education Sustainability Back?
While the momentum for higher education sustainability is growing, some obstacles still prevent more robust programs from emerging. Many universities suggest they need more adequate funding and staffing resources to fully develop their sustainability-linked programs and strategies. Gaining support from administration and board leadership is also essential, as the success of the sustainability program depends on having clear links to the strategy and mission of an institution.
For many campuses, building energy management plays an enormous role. However, getting energy data from across an expansive campus with an extensive portfolio of buildings can be a daunting task for one person. In addition, it may be difficult for the sustainability manager, tasked with planning programs and setting goals, to coordinate with the facilities managers with whom they need to collaborate.
Atrius can ease these concerns with its time-saving environmental energy management system and storytelling dashboards. Organizations can effectively track and monitor their water, energy, waste, and other resource consumption data. It also provides building sustainability and energy project management support to help universities track and reduce their GHG emissions. The impactful data visualization capabilities of Atrius dashboards are beneficial for demonstrating impact to different audiences, from department heads to board directors.
Sustainability is an Investment in the Future
Investing in sustainability in higher education is the responsible approach to setting an example for future leaders. Students demand their universities are invested in leaving the world better than we found it. Campuses across the world have the potential to inspire the next generation to make sustainable practices the norm.
Atrius Sustainability can help manage and track sustainability data, leaving more time for your universities’ sustainability leaders to make an impact.