Cool Schools 2017

Sierra magazine's annual rankings of the most eco-literate colleges and universities

By Katie O'Reilly

August 22, 2017

Cool Schools Top 20 Green Mountain College

See the Rankings for 2017's Coolest Schools

COLLEGES HAVE A REPUTATION as incubators—of new ideas, technologies, cultural trends, and hairstyles. They're where many of us take our first steps toward civic engagement, whether that means organizing for a political candidate or agitating to improve life on campus. 

Today's political climate is galvanizing a new generation of activists. College students are more likely than they have been in 50 years to participate in protests, according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. Sometimes such protests have a clear environmental bent, like the campus movement to encourage college and university endowments to divest from fossil fuels. This shouldn't be surprising, given that more than a quarter of prospective college students cite a school's sustainability commitment as a "very important" factor in their decision about which college or university to attend.

For their part, higher-education administrators are also increasingly committed to sustainability and the idea of using their campuses as places to devise and pilot climate solutions. Following President Donald Trump's June announcement that he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, more than 300 colleges and universities declared their intent to continue reducing carbon emissions. When we launched our campus sustainability rankings in 2006, we covered just 10 schools. This year, a record 239 eligible colleges submitted information on their environmental practices in food and transportation systems, water and waste management, purchasing procedures, academics, investments, and more. 

To compile our annual Cool Schools list, Sierra partners with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to survey participating schools. Then an independent data analyst crunches the numbers. Our ranking of green higher-ed leaders has helped schools justify sustainability departments and secure funding for power purchase agreements for renewable energy. Above all, it has encouraged a culture of transparency around sustainability initiatives. Again and again, we hear committed students and administrators stress that they want to be copied, to have every school tie for number one. 

"We see our campus as a laboratory for students to put their ideas about how the world ought to work into practice," said Heather Albert-Knopp, dean of admission at College of the Atlantic, the "coolest" school of 2016 and 2017. Our hope is that the innovative measures modeled by the following A+ performers will inspire your own green endeavors. These schools will also buoy your faith in the newest generation of environmentalists—and in the far-reaching power of bottom-up leadership.