Read the State of the Campus Environment Report

A National Report Card on Environmental Performance
and Sustainability in Higher Education

 State of the Campus Environment Cover

Written by Mary McIntosh, Ph.D., with Kathleen Cacciola, Stephen Clermont, and Julian Keniry; Survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates

Executive Summary

To glimpse the future, there is no better vantage point than in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than 14 million young people enrolled each year, the values instilled there set the course for succeeding generations not just in the United States, but all across the world. With roads, buildings, fleets of vehicles, labs, offices, residences and stadiums, colleges and universities are microcosms of society.

As such, they provide unique learning laboratories in which students may gain the knowledge, tools and practical experience necessary to strike the appropriate balance between human needs and sustaining the health of our environment. In the process, campuses can innovate and apply new practices and technologies that prevent pollution and waste, serving as models of a green future for other institutions.

The National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Campus Ecology Program has peered into the future and the vision is encouraging. With support from the Educational Foundation of America, NWF commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates to conduct the first comprehensive national survey ever undertaken of environmental initiatives at U.S. institutions of higher learning. The survey generated 1,116 responses from presidents, provosts, and chiefs of administration and operations at 891 of the nation’s 4,100 colleges and universities (almost 22 percent of schools). Separate modules were designed for management practices, curriculum and operations and were completed by 471 presidents, 320 provosts, and 325 facilities chiefs. The margin of error for results from the facilities and provost module is ±5 and for the president module is ±4. As explained further in the methodology section of the full report, we believe this is a strong, representative sampling of colleges and universities (both small and large and from all regions of the country) and is not overly skewed towards respondents who wanted to utilize the survey to highlight exemplary programs.

To illustrate these findings, we have utilized a simple grading system. The grades are based on the percentage of campuses with particular activities in place. They reflect how widely these practices have been embraced within higher education. While they do not necessarily reflect the depth or quality of the programs at individual schools, they are helpful in comparing activity levels within and amongst categories such as curriculum and operations. The results represent a report card on national campus environmental performance, detailing areas in which leadership is strong, as well as important territory into which relatively few have ventured so far.

The grades fall along a generous curve, with the nation receiving an “A” for good practices embraced by 60 percent or more of campuses. The bar can be set higher in subsequent surveys. For now, we thought it appropriate to recognize areas that stand out relative to others and in which a sufficient body of precedent has been established to demonstrate the practicality of the program in a wide variety of contexts and provide a base of support for nudging one another along.

Read on:


Vision from the Top


The motivation for implementing environmental programs transcends regulatory compliance or cost savings. NWF asked college presidents why they were adopting environmental programs in everything from curriculum to purchasing decisions. The number-one response, from 64 percent of those surveyed, is that environmental programs fit with the culture and values on America’s campuses. That is another way of saying that an environmental ethic has taken root at the institutions where tomorrow’s leaders are being trained. Presidents also cite public relations (47 percent) and cost-effectiveness (41 percent) as important factors. A smaller number (17 percent) also noted the importance of environmental programming in recruiting students. The fact that 891 campuses responded to this survey is one indication that environmental performance is taken seriously by some higher education decision-makers. But despite the strong interest, trends in performance vary across categories.


You can read the FULL REPORT by clicking on the links below.

Letter from NWF President Mark Van Putten (p. iii)

Provosts and Academic Officers  (p. 11-19)

Presidents and Executive Officers (p. 21-35)

Chiefs of Facilities or Plant Operations(p. 37-65)

Report Card (p. 67-73)

Methodology, Review Process, and Rationale  (p. 75-78)

Distribution and List of Participating Schools (p. 79-96)

Benchmarking and Assessment (p. 97-103)

Criteria for Exemplary Schools (p. 105-108)

Topline (p. 109-136)

Acknowledgements and Resources  (p. 137-143)

About the Authors (p. 145)

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Environmental Lessons in the Classroom

Although there are encouraging signs that colleges and universities are working to educate students on environmental topics, trends in college curricula are relatively weak compared with the greening of operations and management systems. On the one hand, half the schools have programs supporting their faculty’s professional development on environmental topics and 43 percent offer major or minor programs in environmental studies.


On the other hand, unless they are majoring in biology or environmental studies, students in many institutions may complete their studies without gaining basic environmental literacy. Only 8 percent of campuses require all their students to take environmental studies courses regardless of their major.

Certain professions, in which environmental literacy is crucial, such as engineering and education, still benefit only modestly from environmental training at the undergraduate level. Only 12 percent of engineering and 11 percent of education programs, for instance, currently offer undergraduate environmental courses. This contrasts with 68 percent of biology departments and 33 percent of political science programs.


Integration into biology:  A

Integration into chemistry and political science:  C+

Integration into education and engineering:  D

Professional development for faculty on environmental topics:  B

Energy and Water Conservation at Work

Photo of three solar panels

With the national energy policy debate in full throttle, the survey’s news about energy is especially timely. Indeed, those who frame the energy issue with a heavy-handed emphasis on simply increasing fossil fuel supplies should take heed. America’s colleges and universities are already well embarked on an alternate path, one that emphasizes conservation and efficiency.

Nearly a quarter meet at least some of their energy needs from renewable sources. Respondents cited a number of innovative sources for energy including photovoltaic panels, geothermal heat pumps, and waste heat, as well as solar hydrogen and other types of fuel cells. And almost all have programs in place or in the works to increase the energy efficiency of lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Additionally, more than half the schools have developed efficiency design codes for new or existing buildings. Taken together, these initiatives represent crucial steps toward a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

Good practices for water conservation and efficiency are also widely embraced by campuses. Seventy-two percent of respondents report they have installed efficient toilets, showerheads and faucets and that they recirculate water. A few campuses even report using recycled water for campus landscapes.

It should be noted, however, that few campuses were able or willing to report on the exact quantities of fuel and water used. Thus, this report can assess the types of energy and utility-related conservation programs in place, but is limited in its ability to assess overall impacts or to provide quantitative benchmarks for comparison. Perhaps with time, more respondents will trust that this survey information will not be used to identify campuses that consume more energy than others and will be encouraged to record and share quantitative information to aid in tracking national trends.


Engagement in energy efficiency,conservation, and renewable energy projects:  A-

Taking steps to conserve water and use it more efficiently:  A

Energy efficiency and conservation, however, are just a part of the picture. Our survey found enhanced environmental responsibility driving decisions in every part of campus life, from waste reduction to purchasing and landscaping.

Closing the Loop

recycling cans

Recycling, for example, boasts the highest activity levels of any issue covered in the survey. Perhaps not surprisingly, more campuses recycle aluminum (85 percent) and various grades of paper (ranging from 77 percent to 84 percent) than other materials.

Almost half of all campuses, however, also recycle glass (50 percent), plastic (46 percent), and construction materials (47 percent), and compost food scraps and landscape trimmings (48 percent). Two in 10 (17 percent) campuses report they recycle 40 percent or more of their waste, and five percent of campuses report they recycle between 70 and 100 percent of their municipal solid waste.

To ensure there are markets for the materials recycled, 49 percent of campuses have programs in place to encourage environmentally sound purchasing, such as specifying that the products they purchase contain recycled content. In fact, 29 percent of campuses specify that paper contain a minimum of 25 percent post-consumer waste and, to reduce pollutants emitted at the point of manufacture, 8 percent of campuses have chlorine-free requirements for office paper. With paper being one of the largest and most costly purchases on most campuses, environmentally responsible paper choices are particularly important. While this is relatively new territory for the majority of campuses (and other types of institutions, as well), a handful of campuses have set a healthy precedent for others to emulate.

Beyond recycling materials, campuses are doing a wide variety of things with regard to consumption and waste. For instance, 69 percent have programs in place to reduce the need for paper hard copies; 55 percent have materials exchange programs for computers, furniture, office supplies, and lab equipment; and 43 percent encourage lab courses to implement micro-scale experiments that will consume milliliters rather than liters.

When all is said and done, however, more than 70 percent of campus municipal solid waste on average still ends up in landfills or incinerators.


Amount of waste diverted from landfills and incinerators through recycling:  C

Activity level and array of materials recycled:  A-

Landscapes for People and Wildlife

college girl planting

Campus landscapes are an excellent context in which to demonstrate ecological principles in practice. Conserving water by planting locally adapted, native plants; limiting applications of pesticides; providing food, water and shelter for songbirds and butterflies; and restoring degraded habitats are just a few of the methods campuses are using.

The most common of such programs, practiced by 60 percent of campuses surveyed, is integrated pest management (IPM). IPM minimizes applications of pesticides and herbicides through careful choice and location of plants, natural insect and disease control, and ongoing monitoring. Fifty-one percent of campuses report they plant native trees and shrubs throughout the landscape and 37 percent provide food and shelter to attract wildlife. Another 36 percent of campuses are working to restore degraded wetlands and other habitats adjacent to or on campus grounds. These actions make many campuses attractive stopping grounds for migrating birds throughout the year. They also provide areas for students to study ecological systems in action.


Landscaping Overall:  B-

Transportation: One of the Weaker Links

Biker on campus

Reducing congestion and pollution associated with travel to and from colleges and universities is one of the biggest opportunities campuses have to improve community relations and air quality. With potential savings of many thousands of dollars per space, reducing the need for new parking is an added incentive. Yet transportation management remains largely untapped territory on U.S. campuses.

While a majority of campuses report they offer adequate bicycle racks, key initiatives for reducing single occupant vehicles, such as discounted bus passes for students, faculty or staff, carpooling programs, and incentives not to drive alone, such as emergency rides home, are practiced by fewer than 25 percent of campuses. Only 12 percent of campuses power some of their fleet vehicles with alternative fuels.

Fortunately, in each region of the country, there are good precedents campuses can look to in establishing such programs. Schools with exemplary programs are highlighted in the report.


Transportation Demand Management in General:  C-

Environmental Projects Foster Student Leadership Skills

Significant numbers of campuses recognize that linking the classroom with the campus and the community is a great way to improve environmental performance while fostering student leadership skills. A majority of campuses offer students a range of opportunities to apply environmental knowledge. For instance, 58 percent of campuses have internship programs and community service projects that encompass environmental issues, and 49 percent facilitate campus service projects. Independent research projects, offered by 68 percent of campuses, are the primary mode for accommodating students’ interest in environmental learning.

Another way campuses are linking the classroom with practical experience is through opportunities for students to participate in campus-wide environmental councils. Eighteen percent of campuses have councils that include students.


Fostering Student Leadership:  B+

 Management Systems Broaden and Sustain Programs

bikers talking on campus

Environmental councils or task forces are just one of several elements staff, faculty, and students are putting into place to ensure that environmental responsibility is sustained over time, and woven throughout all academic and administrative departments. Other important elements include setting and reviewing goals for environmental performance, staffing environmental programs, evaluating performance, providing orientation and training, instituting mechanisms for accountability, and providing staffing resources.

Goal setting and review, a key to improving performance over time, is a strategy many campuses have embraced, especially around conserving energy and environmental performance in the design of new buildings. Sixty-four percent of colleges and universities have established and review their progress towards achieving such goals. The next most common areas in which goals are established concern reducing solid waste, protecting natural habitats, and purchasing environmentally sound goods. A sizeable percentage of campuses (29 percent) also set goals for making environmentally responsible investments and another 9 percent of campuses have goals for purchasing organic food. Schools with exemplary programs are noted in the report.


Setting and reviewing goals for conserving energy and environmental performance in new buildings: A-

Setting and reviewing goals across all categories:  B-

Staffing of Environmental Programs

Staffing of environmental programs emerges in the survey as a need. This is consistent with the fact that presidents cite competing priorities for staff time among the primary barriers to their environmental quality initiatives. The most likely program to be staffed is recycling. Fifty-one percent of campuses have recycling coordinators. Precedents do exist for other types of staffing as well; for instance, 36 percent of campuses have energy conservation coordinators, 21 percent report having a full-time administrator on the staff who manages environmental issues beyond regulatory compliance, and another 7 percent have green purchasing coordinators.


Staffing environmental programs:  C

Orienting staff, students, and faculty to conservation programs and goals:  D

Important environmental management elements that are not yet widely applied include:

  • conducting orientation
  • evaluating performance
  • instituting mechanisms for accountability

While 50 percent of provosts report that their faculty receives professional development and training on environmental topics, fewer than 14 percent of campuses orient faculty, staff, or students to campus environmental policies or goals.

This is perhaps one of the biggest opportunities to surface in this survey. What better way to advance environmental performance than by setting the tone when students, faculty, and staff first arrive to the campus? As environmental goals change, students and staff can be re-oriented to these programs, offering an opportunity to clarify procedures, answer questions, and reinforce the value of environmental stewardship on the campus. Similarly, few campuses report evaluating staff and faculty environmental performance or instituting other accountability mechanisms. Only 8 percent of campuses hold campus units accountable for environmental performance through incentives or penalties. And even fewer (4 percent) formally evaluate or recognize how the faculty has integrated environmental topics into the curriculum.


All across the country, colleges and universities are actively improving environmental performance and literacy. While there are significant opportunities for progress within each area, the trend is apparent in the curriculum, management, and operations of most campuses. Collectively, these institutions are, perhaps, best at educating students within the physical sciences about environmental issues; staffing and implementing recycling programs; and setting performance goals for energy, water, and new buildings. Areas of greatest opportunity include extending formal environmental education to more students, especially engineering and education majors; and orienting students, faculty, and staff to campus environmental programs and goals.

One of the most encouraging findings in the survey is that there is a significant minority of campuses (including institutions of all types and sizes and in all regions of the country) working on the leading edge to teach and demonstrate sustainability in practice. These campuses are recycling water, using life-cycle analysis in selecting materials, restoring wildlife habitat, capturing waste heat, geothermal, and solar energy, and providing incentives not to drive alone to campus. Many of them also involve students in environmental task forces, have environmental coordinators, evaluate and report on environmental performance, and require all students to take at least one course on the basic functions of the earth’s natural systems. These initiatives provide experiential learning opportunities for students, foster good public relations, reduce costs and consumption, and set an important precedent for other institutions to follow.

It is more important than ever before that students graduate with the tools and knowledge needed to strike the balance for people and nature when they are called upon to make those decisions in the workplace, at school and at home. Colleges and universities provide unique opportunities for students to gain these crucial skills through what is taught and practiced, both within the classroom and through the management and operations of the campus. Despite all of the encouraging precedent in higher education, much work clearly remains to be done in innovating and demonstrating the greener practices needed for society. This survey should be seen as a baseline from which to encourage and measure future progress. It is also intended to spark healthy debate within higher education about environmental sustainability and how best to achieve it at campuses and beyond.

Overview of Key Findings:

  • Surprising effort despite the odds:  Renewable energy
  • Strongest campus environmental program:  Recycling
  • Most prevalent management strategy:  Setting and reviewing goals
  • Biggest opportunity missed:  Orienting students, faculty and staff
  • Most popular energy strategy:  Lighting retrofits
  • Most popular landscaping strategy:  Integrated pest management
  • Most popular transportation strategy:  Bike racks
  • Areas most likely to be staffed:  Recycling and energy
  • New frontiers:  Purchasing organic foods and chlorine-free paper, life-cycle cost assessment, and ecological building design
  • Biggest surprise:  Number of campuses requiring all students to take an environmental course
  • Strongest motivation for improving environmental performance: Ensuring actions are consistent with the values and culture of the campus 
  • Areas campuses are most likely to focus on in the future:  Reducing solid waste, environmentally preferable purchasing, energy and water conservation and efficiency, design of new buildings
  • Area where most improvement is needed:  Ensuring graduates, regardless of major, are environmentally aware and literate

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