Environmental Sustainability and Higher Education: A Survey Analysis

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 2 : September 1999  [Research]

By Robert W. Taylor

At the start of the 1990’s the Talloires Declaration enunciated the view that Higher Education needed to respond to the challenge of environmental pollution and depletion of natural resources by taking on the role of change agent based on the goals of environmental sustainability. After reviewing various models and indicators of environmental sustainability this study involved a content analysis of 390 websites of randomly selected institutions of higher education in the United States to determine whether there has been wide acceptance of the principles of sustainability as the decade comes to a close. The survey reveals that higher education, for the most part, has not accepted the basic principles of environmental sustainability.


Various models of environmental sustainability for institutions of higher education were reviewed. One model of sustainability dealing exclusively with the college curriculum was established by Michael Edelstein at Ramapo College of New Jersey as part of a grant to infuse environmental literacy into the broad curriculum of the college. This goal was accomplished through the use of over sixty faculty participants as paid consultants spread throughout the college and outside of environmental programs. The group sought to integrate ecological perspectives and concepts into their existing courses. By targeting general courses in the curriculum the Ramapo model sought to reach the entire student body of 4,800 students (Edelstein, 1998).

Other models of sustainability for institutions of higher education deal exclusively with campus operations and specific indicators of sustainability. Traditional indicators of success such as peer reputation, student SAT scores, endowments, government-funded research, percentage of students graduated, and percentage of faculty with doctorates, do not take into consideration the institution’s impact on its natural environment. Two specific models of higher education performance that use environmental sustainability indicators are the Penn State model and the Campus Ecology model. The Penn State model (1998) provides ten categories and thirty-four indicators of sustainability. A group of students and professors evaluated Penn State according to each indicator in their recent study. A report by the Campus Ecology Program (1998) of the National Wildlife Federation discusses twenty-three case studies that highlight cost-saving conservation initiatives at fifteen colleges and universities that saved close to seventeen million dollars. This model emphasizes “best practices” in campus sustainable operations at a variety of institutions.

For the purposes of this study, the concrete application of sustainability includes the analysis of three major areas of higher education: curriculum; campus operations; and community outreach. Environmental literacy, which prepares students to be global citizens with an understanding of the principles of sustainability, is most realized through a broad curriculum emphasizing environmental issues. Campus operations are an effective measure of whether these organizations are practicing sustainability; and community outreach discusses the broad impacts that these higher education institutions make at the local, regional and global level.


This study involves a content analysis of the web sites of randomly selected institutions of higher education in the United States through the internet. Web sites were selected because it was possible to complete the survey with a limited budget; because web sites project the values and image of the institution to the broader world; and because an institution’s web site is becoming a more important information source. The limitations of such an approach is that web sites might not reflect all the sustainability efforts that an institution is making. And, there might exist a bias in favor of larger and wealthier institutions that can afford the construction of a more elaborate web site. Yet, the fundamental premise of the use of web sites is that they can provide the researcher an insight into the self-perception of the institution and hence, whether it places a priority on environmental sustainability and study of the natural world.

A questionnaire containing four basic questions was developed that analyzed the word content of an institution’s web site. Barron’s (1998) was used to provide a list of all four-year institutions of higher education that offer degrees and are either fully accredited or are recognized candidates for accreditation. There are 1650 of these institutions and they represented the total population from which the sample was drawn. A stratified sampling approach was used where institutions were selected by geography, making sure that all fifty states and the District of Columbia were represented. Every fifth institution was selected based on alphabetical order in a systematic procedure. Institutions were coded as a “no response” if they did not have a web site or if researchers evaluated the web site as being too limited. Researchers pretested the questionnaire so that proficiency could be obtained. The content analysis questionnaire was delivered over two months, during October and November of 1998. The results of the survey are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 – Survey Results of Higher Education Institutions on Environmental Sustainability
(figures in percentage of total respondents)
No Response=58
Q. Does the institution display an interest in the natural environment in its mission statement?
Q. Does the institution list or discuss any environmental projects?


If yes:
Dept. Based



Q. Does the institution have an environmental major(s)?
Q. Does the institution engage in environmental outreach?
High Score
Moderate Score
Low Score
Web Site Score: Calculated from the answers from the four questions listed above.


The web site content analysis survey revealed that institutions of higher education in the United States have, for the most part, not accepted the basic principles of environmental sustainability. To the first question “Does the institution display an interest in the natural environment in its mission statement?”, the researchers were only able to code “yes” to 10% of the surveyed institutions. A coded answer of “yes” produced words or phases such as “environment or environmental,” “stewardship,” “sustainable future,” “sustainability,” “nature,” “natural resources,” “preservation,” and “conservation.” These words or phases were viewed in a specified mission statement or its approximation in the institution’s history, background or profile statement. Less than 7% of the web sites surveyed were coded “yes” to the second question, “Does the institution list or discuss any environmental projects?” Examples of projects were recycling programs, desert landscape projects, agricultural and forestry projects, contaminated site clean-up projects, environmental justice projects, web site projects, and field research projects. The largest “yes” response, 38% of the surveyed web sites, was for the third question, “Does the institution have an environmental major?” Many of these majors were clearly identified as operating out of a specific department (30%), or were part of a professional program (29%), i.e. forestry, agriculture, architecture, engineering, etc. Only 20% identified themselves as “multidisciplinary,” a key element of environmental sustainability. And finally, only 20% of the institutions were coded “yes,” to the question, “Does your institution have environmental outreach?” Yes responses included: river ecology programs, sponsoring ecology fairs, environmental conferences, tropical field studies, internships, community research projects and environmental auditing, biological and coral reef field stations, student environmental community advocacy, and elementary and high school environmental education outreach.

An institutional web site “sustainability score” was calculated by giving a score of “2” to each institution coded as “yes,” and “1” to each institution coded as “no” to the four questions described above. These scores were added up and divided by four, producing a web site “sustainability score” for each institution. A score of 1.25 or below was “low,” 1.50 was “moderate,” and 1.75 or above was “high.” Slightly under 75% of the institutions were scored as “low,” which reinforced the findings that environmental sustainability has not taken hold in the institutions of higher education in the United States, at least when viewing their web sites.


While these findings were glaring, a survey objective was also to provide a profile of institutions of higher education that scored highest in environmental sustainability. To undergo this analysis, variables such as geographic region, size of full-time student enrollment, whether the institution was public or private, tuition, location (urban, rural, suburban small town), and math SAT scores were analyzed (Table 2). This data was supplied in Barron’s (1998), and the data was interpreted through the analysis of cross-tabulations and chi square values. The variable web site sustainability score was cross-tabulated against an institution’s size of full-time student enrollment and whether it was public or private. This analysis revealed that the larger the full-time enrollment size of the institution the greater the probability of it having a higher sustainability web site score. Public institutions displayed a greater tendency to have a higher score than private institutions.

Table 2 – Survey Results of Selected Variables for Institutions of Higher Education
(figures in percentage of total respondents)
North Central
South Centra
Rocky Mountains
West Coast
Variable: Geographic Region
Under 1000
1000 to 5000
5001 to 10,000
10,000 plus
Variable: Size of Student Enrollment
Under $6,000
$6,000 to $12,000
$12,001 to $18,000
$18,000 plus
Variable: Tuition
Variable: Type of Institution
Small Town
Variable: Location
Under 500
501 to 600
600 plus
Variable: SAT Math Score

When the variable majors (whether the institution had environmental majors) was cross-tabulated against the variables region, full-time student enrollment size, tuition, and math SAT scores, the following results were found. Institutions located in the Northeast registered the highest incidence of environmental major(s). The larger the institution the greater the probability of it having an environmental major(s). Institutions with tuition under $6,000 indicated the greatest propensity of having an environmental major(s) followed by institutions with tuition over $18,000. Public institutions tended to have a greater probability of having an environmental major(s) compared to private institutions. And, institutions with higher SAT math scores had a higher incidence of environmental major(s), with institutions between 500 and 600 particularly well represented.

Statistically speaking, the above relationships are highly significant. The significance level for web site score and student enrollment size is P=.009, for web site score and institution type (public or private) is P=.012, for majors and geographic region is P=.004, for majors and institution type is P=.000, for majors and tuition is P=.009, and for majors and SAT math score is P=.008. For example, a P value of 0.009 for the chi square value of web site score and student enrollment size reveals that there is 9 chances in a thousand that the relationship described above may not hold.


This survey of the web sites of higher education institutions, the face that the institution displays to the public, only a small percentage of these institutions recorded a high priority given to the goals of environmental sustainability. A number of possible reasons can be surmised for this statistically supported observation. Higher Education is not driven by regulatory bodies to meet specific environmental standards as is Industry. And, until recently, Higher Education does not have the mechanisms or institutional policies in place to support environmental management systems. The advent of the ISO 14000 series for environmental management, the recent literature on the competitive nature of environmentally efficient businesses, and the cost-savings associated with effective environmental management systems, all have made believers of corporate business. A survey by the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Company found that 92% of CEOs and Board Members believe that the environment should be a top management priority (Jubeir, 1995). Institutions of higher education need to be so enlightened. A possible driver for Higher Education may be in the creation of regional consortiums or partnerships of higher education institutions devoted to putting in place the basic principles of environmental sustainability. Such a partnership model has been recently developed in Northern New Jersey between eight institutions of higher education through a grant by the Geraldine Dodge Foundation (Wheeler, 1998). The effectiveness of this model still awaits analysis.


Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, 1998. The Declaration. Vol. 2, No. 2 Winter.

Barron’s, 1998. Profiles of American Colleges, 23rd edition. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Eagen, David J. and Julian Keniry, 1998. Green Investment, Green Return: How Practical Conservation Projects Save Millions on Americas Campuses. Washington, D.C.: National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program.

Edelstein, Michael, 1998. Executive Summary: Environmental Literacy in the Undergraduate Curriculum. Ramapo, New Jersey: Ramapo College.

Jubeir, Julie, 1995. “Educating Environmental Managers for Tomorrow,” EPA Journal, p. 31-33, Spring.

Keniry, Julian, 1995. Ecodemia: Campus Environmental Stewardship at the Turn of the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.

Smith, April and the Student Action Coalition, 1993. Campus Ecology: A Guide to Assessing Environmental Quality and Creating Strategies for Change. Los Angeles, CA: Living Planet Press.

Students and Faculty, 1998. Sustainable Penn State: The Indicators. University Park, PA: Penn State.

Tibor, Tom and Ira Feldman, 1996. ISO 14000: A Guide to the New Environmental Management Standards. Chicago: Irwin.

Wheeler, Donald. 1998. Draft of Proposal to the Dodge Foundation for the Establishment of New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (NJHEPS). Union, New Jersey: Kean University.


Special thanks to my graduate students in environmental studies who were primary researchers for the survey and contributed their comments on various models of environmental sustainability. Also, special thanks to Andrea Kluchiwsky who coded the surveys for computerized statistical analysis, the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies which provided funds for a student worker, the faculty research released time program and my colleagues in the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability.
Robert W. Taylor is a professor of urban and environmental studies in the Dept. of Earth and Environmental Studies at Montclair State University in northern New Jersey. He is also a member of the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability. Dr. Taylor can be reached at Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043; tel: 973-655-4448.

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