If there’s a college-bound senior in your life, you probably know it’s acceptance letter time—when thousands of students anxiously await notification about the applications they spent months developing. Then comes the difficult decision on which school to attend.

What role does sustainability play in this decision and at large in the higher education world? A significant one, it turns out.

It is evident today that there are a growing number of advocates who fully embrace sustainability in higher education institutions. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) currently has over 1,000 members, with more than 600 schools registered to use its Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS). Additionally, The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment has 697 signatories, 2,151 schools have submitted greenhouse gas inventories, and over 530 have submitted climate action plans with hundreds in progress. A quick keyword search within the USGBC LEED Project Directory for “university” and “college” results in over 2,550 projects.

But despite an abundance of supporters for sustainability practices within higher education, there is still so much opportunity for impactful, positive change. With university funding low, sustainable solutions to reduce campus operational expenses are needed now more than ever. However, university budgets, operations, and facilities often operate independently, creating silos that lack the connecting pieces required to cohesively meet the goals within a campus sustainability plan.

Creating a holistic vision for sustainability within higher education will require institutions to connect those dots.

Sustainability is Essential in Education

At Paladino, we believe this can be achieved by applying what we call an Abundance approach. Rather than focusing on what is lacking within a given context, we consult with the belief that existing resources can be determined, utilized and maximized to create the most value for a campus sustainability plan.

So why do we think it is so critical to determine the existing abundances within educational institutions and embed sustainability holistically? Because we understand that higher education is the foundation for our future. There is ample opportunity for institutions to set the precedent in their infrastructure, and be a catalyst to transforming the rest of the built world by influencing the hearts and minds of the young leaders they foster.

To illustrate the potential of positive impact, the following are a number of ways implementing sustainability within a university setting will influence its people, planet and prosperity:

It reduces energy and water use, decreasing operating costs.

Higher education campuses have an abundance of older, historic buildings that could use some much needed upgrades. The systems and fixtures are often inefficient and outdated, and their envelopes may be under-insulated and leaky. Additionally, the multiple layers of different colleges and facility teams within a campus complicates management and controls and they are often not set up for optimum operation.

These inefficiencies lead to high energy and water usage. Due to the decrease in state funding per student, many colleges are cash-strapped and cutting spending on educational and sporting programs as well as much-needed facility improvements. By offsetting the decrease in per student funding with energy and water conservation, colleges may have the opportunity to reallocate funds to something that appeals to and supports both students and faculty, like a new athletic stadium, campus gym, residence hall updates, or state-of-the-art Wi-Fi speeds.

Current and potential students care about sustainability.

Think back to that college student facing the big, life-changing decision. It turns out that sustainability is a key factor in their evaluation process. The 2014 College Hopes and Worries study conducted by the Princeton Review found that 61% of students and 60% of parents care about colleges’ commitment to sustainability issues, noting that its commitment to environmental issues would impact their decision.

Because higher education enrollment has been declining since 2011, colleges are competing for fewer students. Based on the findings of this poll, it’s evident that a strong environmental commitment can give a university or community college the edge over the competition.

Institutions can be an example of responsible use of resources.

Institutions of higher education have a tremendous opportunity to not only teach sustainable concepts, but to practice them and serve as a model to the abundance of future leaders who walk through their halls. These world leaders will be the ones who have a say in the evolution of the ecology and sustainability of our planet, so their influence is critical.

As universities train and mentor the next generation of politicians, corporate executives, community leaders and innovators, they are naturally bestowed with the power to set the precedent when implementing sustainable practices and operations on campus. It’s not enough just to place “sustainability” in a university mission statement; they must walk the talk and teach students about follow-through.

A healthy indoor environment keeps students and faculty happy, focused and well.

Study after study finds that attention to human health and wellness affects many occupant behaviors such as productivity, mental clarity, and energy level, all of which are vital to the daily activities of the academic world. When students spend their entire days and weeks on campus – in academic buildings, athletic facilities, dining and residence halls – universities must prioritize daylighting, views, indoor air quality, ventilation, health and fitness, and overall occupant wellness.

How We’re Helping to Educate the Educators 

Overall, an abundance of potential rests inside university walls. It’s essential that campuses provide an example of commitment to care for our finite resources and demonstrate what most effectively benefits society and the environment.

At Paladino, we hope to enhance new and existing campus buildings and infrastructure through thought leadership, innovation, inspiration, and collaboration. We have a passion for creating learning environments that engage, and have demonstrated success in translating aspirations into reality.

This year we will focus on sustainability in higher education on our blog, expanding upon the latest in trends, initiatives, real world examples and best practices. We will discuss how institutions can bridge connections between funding and execution, exploration and results, and campus and community.

We’d love to hear your comments. If you wish to continue the conversation with us, please subscribe by clicking on one of the links below.

Hanna VanOverschelde

Hanna VanOverschelde, PE, LEED® AP ID+C, is a manager at Paladino Seattle.

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