My first child to graduate from high school—Anna—will fly the coop this fall, and this past month has been a whirlwind of campus visits as we consider her top four college choices: University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Vermont-Burlington, University of North Carolina-Asheville, and a private college in Northfield, Minnesota, called St. Olaf .
All four have accepted her. All four are excellent institutions. As one author and college counselor wrote in one of the many how-to books I read in the nail-biting months leading up to that first acceptance letter, at this stage we have transitioned from being a seller—“Here are her grades; here is her essay; here are her SAT scores”—to a buyer, asking ourselves where can we…pardon…where can Anna imagine herself having the best college experience over the next four years?
As an ecoAmerica employee, I kept an eye out for all things green while we toured these four very different institutions. The good news is that things have changed a LOT since I went to college (which was sometime after man invented the wheel, but before he created the Internet), and for the better. Sustainable living is practiced everywhere, literally, from the tiny college of St. Olaf (with its 3,000 students) to U. Mass Amherst, which boasts the country’s tallest library building (28 stories) and nearly 30,000 students.
Here are four of the many wonderful things I learned about our four top choices:
1. Every college we visited is highly conscientious about sustainable living and encourages its students to follow suit. Recycling, composting—all of this is second nature. The book store at U. Mass advertises the “Sustainable UMASS Collection,” a clothing line made out of plastic bottles. A café two doors down knocks 25 cents off the price of a cup of java if the buyer brings her own cup, and a screen on the wall nearby boasts the college’s 12 acres of solar parking canopies. University of Vermont has a Renewable Energy Network, a student-run organization that “connects and prepares students for a clean-energy future”; it’s the ninth member of a growing nationwide group called the Solar Energy Society. At St. Olaf, a wind turbine connected directly to the college’s grid takes advantage of the north winds blasting down from Canada through the long winters (talk about making lemonade out of lemons!). This and 40 acres of solar panels enabled St. Olaf to declare itself carbon neutral in late 2016.
2. Every institution had all-encompassing curricula on sustainability, including extensive field work and courses that tied together the hard and social sciences, and the economics and politics of environmental action. St. Olaf offers a first-year specialty for students to focus on environment, policy and values—no matter what their intended major. A $6 million grant from the Gund family recently enabled the University of Vermont to launch an institute for environment to tackle the world’s most critical environmental problems. It made me think about ecoAmerica’s insight in creating open-source curricula on climate and sustainability years ago for community colleges across the country, a resource that later became the stand-alone SEED Center.
3. You can get everywhere you need to get—easily, efficiently, and with flair—without a car that burns fossil fuel. There are shuttle systems, bike paths and bike shares, special parking places for electric vehicles—even skateboards galore. I was delighted to learn that a regional Amtrak train called the Vermonter could get Anna all the way home from Burlington or Amherst to D.C., economically and within a day. St. Olaf actively discourages its students from owning cars or living off campus, but there are free and convenient shuttles for the 45-minute trip north to Minneapolis for students who want to get away on weekends.
4, Colleges and universities tout their accomplishments and work with local communities to compound them. Like the winners of the Solution Generation awards launched by ecoAmerica, these institutions are loud and proud about their commitment to sustainability and climate change awareness in the classroom, on campus and in the community. At St. Olaf, some 15 student organizations form the college’s Environmental Coalition, which offers educational programming, builds awareness, and promotes smart green public policy advocacy beyond the campus. At UNC Asheville, incoming freshmen can move into their dorms a week early and learn about environmental sustainability on campus and in the local community, in a program that covers everything “from bees to bogs.” All four institutions brag about their local food sources, and student clubs that focus on gardening and sustainable living abound.
The good news is we have no bad choices, academically or on the sustainability front. The challenge is we have to choose, unless Anna would like to attend college well into her 30s and earn four consecutive bachelor’s degrees. I guess we’ll need to take a closer look at the extra curricular offerings, but even those abound: U. Mass has a goat-herding team, for Pete’s sake, but the choir from tiny St. Olaf will give you the shivers and has performed to a full house in Carnegie Hall and received a standing ovation. Maybe we’ll need to flip a coin.