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Getting an Environmentally Friendly Online Education

Dec 17, 2008 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

People choose schools for many reasons—including cost, quality of education, location, and type of degree programs offered.  It’s less common for students to choose their school based on its environmental policies.  But for a select group of earth-conscious students and their families, a green education is non-negotiable.

Still, it can be difficult to find a college that embraces environmentally friendly policies in all aspects of operation and academics. It’s not unusual for schools with beautiful natural grounds located in lovely rural settings to be less ecologically responsible than bustling city campuses—and students who care about the environment can easily be seduced by the appearance of the first and reject the second out of hand.

The good news is that, if you choose online education, you’re already a step ahead.  Online education tends to be intrinsically more green than traditional for many reasons, including reduced commuter pollution, a smaller required school footprint, and less energy expended to serve on-campus classes and students.

But even if you’re going the traditional route, there are ways to ensure you get a green education.  Here are a few things to look for when choosing a school.

At a Glance: Signs Your School is Green

Wind turbines and green education

Green policies at the nation's colleges have allowed many institutions both online and offline to take advantage of lower cost renewable energy resources for powering their campus buildings and computers.

An environmentally active student body Do the students at your school care about the environment? Is there an active club or group that campaigns for environmental issues, and does it have widespread campus support? Are student initiatives supported by faculty advisers and the administration?

Green classes and majors

Look for a school with a thriving environmental studies department and a large, distinguished faculty.  Check out schools with environmental science courses and online degrees in environmental science, conservation, environmental waste management, environmental auditing, solar energy, and solar energy training.

Environmental emphasis in websites and literature

Green schools don’t keep quiet about their initiatives. Visit the website first; this is where schools that care about environmental issues will announce earth-friendly policies and events, publish their green vision statements and highlight their sustainability plans. Check out Warren Wilson College, Green Mountain College, Northland College, and Unity College for examples of colleges that put environmental policies front and center on their websites.

Ask Questions of Your School

Green fertilizer

Those beautiful manicured grounds are sometimes maintained with less-than-ideal methods.  Chemicals contained in fertilizers and pesticides can leach into waterways and soil, wreaking environmental havoc with local plant and animal populations.  Look for a school that uses natural fertilizers such as compost, alfalfa meal, or liquid seaweed biostimulants and demonstrates a commitment to pesticide-free pest control.

Sustainable development

Many schools get caught in a development frenzy, always trying to spend donor money earmarked for certain development projects and keep up with other colleges in building newer, bigger and fancier facilities.  Ask your school whether it’s committed to sustainable and environmentally responsible development and preserving wild space in conjunction with campus buildings.

Energy-saving fixtures

Ask if your school uses Energy Star appliances and energy-saving light bulbs. Compact fluorescent light bulbs typically use—and waste—90% less energy than incandescent bulbs.  Your school can make a big difference simply by switching its light bulbs.

Waste saving and recycling initiatives

Schools produce—and waste—a lot of paper, glass bottles, plastics, and other potential recyclables.  Look for a school with a strongly promoted and enforced recycling policy and a commitment to reducing waste.

Responsible procurement

Green schools are typically committed to buying products, equipment and materials that are as environmentally friendly, nontoxic and natural as possible. Responsible procurement policies can encompass a wide variety of items schools buy, from fuel-efficient vehicles to environmentally friendly building materials.

Responsible disposal of hazardous waste

Chemicals and other materials used in school labs, art departments, and medical programs can cause environmental damage when disposed of irresponsibly. Make sure your college has a comprehensive hazardous waste disposal program that emphases recycling over incineration whenever possible, as incineration can release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Students and instructors alike should be educated on what materials constitute hazardous waste and how to dispose of it properly.

Environmental education may not yet be as high-profile an issue as affirmative action, student loans and No Child Left Behind.  But as more students and parents care about these issues and demand schools adopt green policies, more schools will begin to comply.  Look for the signs, and you should be able to get a green education at a great school.


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