U.S. Colleges' Green Grade: C-

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Students walk near Sather Tower on the University of California at Berkeley campus.

If small class size, world-class professors and an endowment larger than some nations' GDPs were the only criteria for ranking colleges, Harvard might always come out ahead. (Guess who tops the annual U.S. News and World Report list this year?) But the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) on Aug. 21 released its own ratings of American colleges and universities — based not on selectivity, but on greenness. The results are a bit surprising. For all the attention that environmental causes have garnered over the past several years, the NWF found that sustainability-related education offered on campuses stayed steady between 2001 and 2008 — and might even have declined. "As an educator, I found this a cause for concern," writes Kevin Coyle, the NWF's vice president for education and training, in the report's foreword.

Why does that matter? If you believe that climate change is will be one of the greatest challenges facing the U.S. and the world for the foreseeable future, you know that we'll need engineers, scientists and even politicians versed in sustainability. That means American colleges need to educate and churn out graduates with the skills for a new energy economy. But while U.S. schools have done well in greening their campuses — rare is the day that passes without a college announcing a new green building or program for energy efficiency — colleges are lacking when it comes to sustainable education. The report gave U.S. universities an overall C- on sustainability education, down from a C grade in NWF's last report in 2001, and noted that only 4% of all colleges require students to take at least one course related to the environment or sustainability. "We don't feel the academic programming in universities is keeping up," says Coyle. "They're not preaching what they're practicing."

It's not clear why the software side of sustainability education seems to be lagging behind the hardware side. One obvious reason is that the construction of a green building is fairly straightforward, but the architecture of an educational program isn't something that can be changed overnight. "If you design a part of the physical plant wrong, it's obvious quickly," says Terry Calhoun of the Society for College and University Planning. "It's not so obvious with the curriculum."

The NWF report notes that few universities offer interdisciplinary programs for environmental studies — a key failure, because the environment touches on everything from politics to the economy to straight science. Not every student needs to major in sustainability studies, but every student should have some familiarity with the basics of global warming and renewable energy. The good news is that new educational curriculums may be on the horizon — on Aug. 14, President George W. Bush signed legislation that will offer grants to colleges and universities looking to expand sustainability studies.

Some schools are already ahead of the pack. The NWF report doesn't rank universities by greenness, but it does highlight over 200 of the best performers. Michigan State University got high marks for increasing the number of sustainability courses it offered fivefold since 2000. The University of Colorado, Boulder, has an Environmental Center that employs eight full-time professors and serves more than 100 students. The center provides both interdisciplinary environmental studies, and helps plan the greening of the university. Then there's the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, which offers just one major: human ecology. Though that's a degree of environmental focus that few universities could be expected to match, American higher education could definitely use a deeper tinge of green.