Sierra Club is America’s largest grassroots environmental organization with a membership around 3.5 million. It’s mission is to encourage people to enjoy the many benefits of the outdoors, while lobbying for wildlife protection, clean energy, health and safety and environmental preservation.

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Spotlighting on these issues, the Sierra Club ranked the green aspects of 328 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. The results of the 15th annual “Coolest Schools” evaluation were recently released by “Sierra,” the organization’s national magazine. 

Related: New LEED-targeted student housing supports net-zero goals

The rankings are based on a criteria that reflects a commitment to eco-friendly actions and messaging in the curriculum. Each school in the top 20 has taken actions toward addressing climate change through architectural material selection, campus planning initiatives, operational standards and energy efficiency

The researchers also looked at the courses offered through each institution and placed a value on environmentally-focused curricula, including environmental activism, renewable energy, waste management and protection of nature.

University exterior

The number one spot went to Arizona State University, which has placed in the top five for the past several years.

“Sustainability at ASU is an enterprise-wide effort,” said Morgan Olsen, ASU executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. “It’s not just recycling and energy conservation. It’s integrating sustainability in everything we do: academic offerings, the research we conduct, the way we operate campus, student experiences, investments we make with our endowment and even the food we serve.”

The campus honors this commitment with 37 percent of all food and drink offerings being plant-based (some sourced from the on-campus educational garden). It also developed a protective habitat for burrowing owls and planted a forest to provide education about how trees capture carbon. Nearly 95 percent of the academic departments offer coursework on the topic of sustainability. 

Rooftop with solar panels

With similar initiatives, campuses across California reflected the environmental protection ideology prevalent throughout the state. Campuses in Irvine, Berkeley, Merced, Santa Barbara and Davis all made the short list. Also representing the west coast is Seattle University, placing 14th.  

Schools in the eastern portion of the United States also represented well, placing in nine of the top 20 spots across campuses in New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maine and District of Columbia. Rounding out the top 20 from the center-left of the country is number 10: Colorado State University. 

Canada showed a shared passion for environmental protections and the responsibility to educate students about eco-issues with Thompson Rivers. In British Columbia, it took the number three spot. Université de Sherbrooke (#11) and Université Laval (#13), both in Quebec, also made the list.

Katie O’Reilly, Sierra’s lifestyle and adventure editor summarizes how the landscape of conscientious environmentalism has expanded in recent decades.

“In the past 15 years, Cool Schools has evolved dramatically—we used to hear about light-green initiatives like double-sided printing and Earth Day parties,” she said. “Today, schools have dedicated sustainability professionals who innovate pathways toward audacious zero-carbon and zero-waste and circular goals. This year, I was particularly impressed by how campus sustainability offices used pandemic downtime to examine what it means to ‘come back’ and how sustainability and equity could be further integrated into every aspect of campus life and operations. They exhibited a real ‘let no crisis go to waste’ ethos.”

Open greenhouse door with students inside

Sierra’s top 20 green schools of 2021 are:

  1. Arizona State University (Tempe, Arizona) 
  2. University of California, Irvine (Irvine, California) 
  3. Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops, British Columbia)
  4. Cornell University (Ithaca, New York)
  5. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, New York)
  6. University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
  7. University of California, Merced (Merced, California) 
  8. University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut)
  9. University of New Hampshire (Durham, New Hampshire)
  10. Colorado State University (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  11. Université de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke, Québec)
  12. Colby College (Waterville, Maine)
  13. Université Laval (Québec City, Québec)
  14. Seattle University (Seattle, Washington) 
  15. Chatham University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
  16. University of California, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, California) 
  17. Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania)
  18. University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst, Massachusetts)
  19. American University (Washington, District of Columbia)
  20. University of California, Davis (Davis, California) 

The Sierra Club recognizes it’s nothing new for youth to be passionate about the environment and sees the opportunity to support efforts to take action. Coupled with the support of college and university campuses, students have the opportunity to initiate lasting change. In addition to offering educational resources to students on topics related to the environment, these green schools set an example through campus policies aimed at green construction, recycling efforts, water savings, passive design elements and the use of solar power. 

“Youth and students have always been at the forefront of movements for change, from the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s to the youth-led climate strikes of today,” said Eddie Junsay, Youth Leadership Director of the Sierra Club. “School campuses play an important role providing the environment for students to collectively develop their political analysis and learn how to advocate for the world they want to see. This issue is a chance for schools to heed the calls of their students, to be leaders for climate and social justice.”

The full ranking of 328 colleges and universities is online.

Via Sierra Club

Images via Sierra Club