According to Sierra magazine, “More than two-thirds of high schoolers say that whether a college is green factors into their selection process.” With climate change being one of the biggest issues of the 21st century, this makes perfect sense. But how can you know if a college really has sustainability at its core? Here are five tips to help check colleges on your list.
1) Did the college fill out the STARS survey? STARS is the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ put out by AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). The system is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. It asks about sustainability across the campus—curriculum, dining, energy, buildings, and outreach, for example.
The STARS survey requires submission every five years. However, Sterling College has filled out the survey every year since 2014, and is currently working on its 2017 submission. We scored Gold in our first year submitting the survey. For 2016, our score was Gold, at 75.27.
2) Has the college finished its divestment from fossil fuels? So far, over 75 colleges and universities across the U.S. have pledged to divest their endowments either wholly or partially from fossil fuels. Fantastic! This is a step in the right direction.
But the next step needs to be completing the divestment. Sterling College was the first college in Vermont, and the third college in the U.S., to announce it was divesting from fossil fuels. We completed the divestment in July of 2013, just six months after our announcement.
Also: our divestment was without drama. It came from our Board of Trustees, who voted unanimously to divest. No pickets. No sit-ins. At Sterling, we were all on the same page—and that page had a big “No” on it to investing in fossil fuel extractors.
3) How much of the academics cover sustainability topics? Sometimes, when colleges promise a commitment to environmentalism, they’re only talking about the majors that cover “green” topics. But shouldn’t everyone on campus be learning about our air, water, soil, climate, and food systems?
We think so. All of our majors—Ecology, Sustainable Agriculture, Outdoor Education, Sustainable Food Systems, and Environmental Humanities—are centered around reshaping humanity’s relationship with the natural world. We also encourage students to pursue their own interests with the self-designed major. You’ll have classes in a laboratory or seminar room, on the side of a mountain, or in a barn or pasture. You’ll work one-on-one with our academic and practitioner faculty to delve deeper into issues of environmentalism, education, and sustainability.
4) How “real” is the food on campus? Lots of colleges are proud of their dining halls and snack bars, offering 24-hour service and world cuisine. But is their dining both tasty and ecologically sound?
Sterling College has been ranked #1 in campus food that’s local, sustainable, fair-trade, and humane for the past two years by the Real Food Challenge and was ranked #1 for sustainable food by Sierra magazine.
The Real Food Challenge has put us at 75% real food—far and away the most real food on campus in the country. Well over 20% of our food comes right from our own campus farm. We use no trays, reusable cups, cutlery, and plates, and we compost any waste, which goes right back to the farm. We have no vending machines on campus, but offer snacks from the kitchen. Delicious—and deliciously sustainable.
5) Is the college’s mission related to environmentalism? At Sterling, environmental stewardship is the essential enterprise of our campus. In 1978, when we were transitioning from a boys’ prep school and starting down the path of becoming a four-year college, the College said that the relationship between humanity and the environment was the most critical issue facing society today, and “it has become very clear that neither the narrow technician nor the uninformed idealist can reach a solution alone.”
Our mission states: “The Sterling College community combines structured academic study with experiential challenges and plain hard work to build responsible problem solvers who become stewards of the environment as they pursue productive lives.”
That’s what we’ve focused on for over 40 years: advocacy for sustainability, conservation, local food, and, as alumnus Ben Matthews ’09 says, “to see the world with an ecologist’s eye and a naturalist’s heart.”