Colleges Grow More Earth-Conscious to Lure New Students

Harvard pledged this month to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. The University of New Hampshire became the first school in the nation this year to use landfill methane gas as its prime energy source. And the College of the Atlantic in Maine plans to open green dormitories with composting toilets in August.

Colleges across the country are rolling out a host of environmentally friendly initiatives, expanding beyond campus recycling and energy efficient buildings to hire sustainability officers to oversee all environmental programs. The push coincides with the rise of “green college” rankings and as the schools use their new policies and practices as a recruiting tool for students who came of age during the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” former vice president Al Gore’s popular documentary about global warming.

“The current generation of students wants to go to schools that take their environmental responsibility seriously,” said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, based in Lexington, Ky. “In the last two or three years, it’s really picked up, past some sort of tipping point.”

The rising fervor around environmental initiatives has launched Harvard, UNH, and the College of the Atlantic into the ranks of the nation’s top green colleges, a new category in Princeton Review’s “Best 368 Colleges.”

The three colleges are among the 11 that received a top rating, a list that includes two other New England schools: Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, which started a Zipcar program and a bicycle co-op last year; and Yale University, which generates 50 percent of the power for a divinity school dormitory from solar panels and plans to add solar technology to other buildings next school year.

More than ever, prospective students are judging colleges on their environmental stewardship, along with the traditional rankings of academics, dorm food, and the party scene, said Rob Franek, vice president of Princeton Review and the annual book’s author.

In the Review’s latest survey, 63 percent of college applicants and their parents said they wanted more information about a college’s commitment to the environment; a quarter of them said it would strongly impact their decision to apply or attend a school.

“Students are exposed to sustainability initiatives at a younger age, so they expect the same from their undergraduate schools, and colleges feel obliged to make them available,” Franek said.

Colleges are eyeing each other’s initiatives, as the green movement, once confined to the edges of campus life where students living in co-ops would grow vegetables and compost waste, goes mainstream and the schools scramble to outdo one another.

Harvard, with 24 full-time staff members carrying out its Green Campus Initiative, supports the largest university organization in the world devoted to sustainability work, said Leith Sharp, the program’s director.

Harvard pays its students to promote conservation efforts and holds an annual competition to honor the most Earth-friendly residence hall for recycling and reducing energy and water consumption. The winning dorm takes home the Green Cup, a trophy fashioned out of an old beer keg spray-painted forest green.

The conservation efforts — which include using the cold water setting when doing laundry, taking only what students think they will eat in the dining hall, and shutting windows in the winter — are paying off, saving the university at least $400,000 a year, Sharp said. Electricity use in undergraduate dorms decreased 15 percent within three years of launching the initiative, and recycling increased by more than 30 percent, she said. Dining halls have seen a 33 percent reduction in food waste.

“About a year or two ago, we hit this critical mass within the university, where the issue of greening the campus was no longer a fringe issue,” Sharp said. “It became a central concern.”

Harvard dining halls serve organic produce, compost food waste, and organize weekly farmers markets. Its recycling truck is fueled by waste-kitchen oil. The university also subsidizes half the cost of public transit passes for students and staff and rewards carpoolers with prime parking spots, while raising the price of on-campus parking, resulting in a 10 percent reduction in single-occupant car trips in the last six years, she said.

Students have also pressured university leaders to stay at the forefront of the green curve. Harvard’s Environmental Action Committee, an undergraduate environmental advocacy and political group, got 4,500 students to sign a petition last winter urging Drew Faust, university president, to expand teaching and research on climate, energy, and sustainability, and commit to the bold greenhouse gas initiative.

“Students are used to seeing Harvard as a leader in most things,” said Zachary Arnold, a junior and cochairman of the committee. “Without a strong commitment and active engagement with this issue, Harvard was in danger of losing its leadership.”

Bay State schools that did not make Princeton Review’s list of top green colleges this year tout recognition in other rankings.

MIT ranked among the nation’s top 25 schools in a recent report card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. A rainwater harvesting system on the school’s Cambridge campus cuts potable water use in half. And next year, the university expects to introduce renewable, plant-based biodiesel fuel for its vehicles. It is also studying the potential of mounting wind turbines on several campus buildings.

Interest in environmental sustainability has grown so much among MIT students that the university made grants of up to $20,000 last year to encourage students to pursue energy research, such as mapping energy use in buildings across campus, said Steven Lanou, deputy director for environmental sustainability. The university, like several others, is also developing new courses addressing the issue.

Sierra Magazine, which bestowed the title of “original green school” on Tufts University for developing the nation’s first university environmental policy in 1990, named the school one of the top 10 greenest in the country last year. Dorms hold a monthlong energy conservation competition called “Do It In the Dark!”

“The rankings themselves bring credibility to the issue and will push students to think about this in their selection criteria,” said Sarah Hammond Creighton, director of Tufts’s office of sustainability.