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Hope for the Future: Educating the Next Generation of Sustainability Professionals

Every day we see more and more evidence of sustainability continuing to develop and grow as a business imperative. Maintaining the growth in sustainability practice throughout the business world will require more professionals who understand the risks, challenges, and rewards of integrating sustainability into business culture. And the demand for trained, knowledgeable sustainability professionals is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

Higher education has been responding to this need by developing new academic programs to provide students with a solid foundation in sustainability principles.

We’ve been closely monitoring recent developments in sustainability education. Here are some that have caught our eye:

Academic Programs in Sustainability Are Growing Rapidly

Sustainability programs in higher education are growing. In some cases, colleges and universities are creating entire academic programs focused on sustainability.  While many of these are undergraduate major or minor degree programs, graduate programs have been quickly developing as well. Some colleges are integrating sustainability concepts into the fabric of academic courses right across the entire curriculum.  As we noted in last week’s blog, Cultivating Sustainability Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors: Education’s Role, the University of Vermont has added a general education requirement in sustainability. Many other schools are taking a similar approach.

The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) conducted a census of environmental and sustainability programs across U.S. four-year colleges and universities.  NCSE conducted the first census in 2008. It repeated the exercise in 2012 and found:

  • 759 sustainability academic programs,
  • 316 sustainability minors and certificates programs, and
  • 141 sustainability degree programs, offered by
  • 351 colleges and universities

These are impressive numbers, but what’s really remarkable is the whopping 57% increase in degree programs, and 29% increase in institutions offering sustainability programs from 2008 to 2012. This rapid and dramatic growth is driven by student and employer demand. Today’s entering students are well aware of the opportunities that accompany a solid grounding in sustainability principles, practices and experiences. So they’re looking for colleges that offer it.

College “Green Rankings” Are Growing Too

Everybody loves to hate college rankings. But the organizations that collect and assess information and rate or rank colleges know that applicants study these rankings closely. They’re looking for clues that indicate whether a school might (or might not) be a good fit. And today’s college applicants are looking for information on colleges’ performance in sustainability – both as an academic study and in student organizations and activities.

Princeton Review’s Green Colleges Guide. The Princeton Review, collaborating with the U.S. Green Building Council, publishes an annual “Greenest Colleges” list, now in its eighth year. The list is comprised of colleges that “demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability in their academic offerings, campus infrastructure, activities, and career preparation.” The 2015 guide lists 353 “Greenest Colleges” of the more than 2000 colleges that submitted information to Princeton Review.

Princeton Review believes that students are looking for information about sustainability, and they have the numbers to substantiate that belief. Their annual “Hopes and Worries” survey finds that 61% of this year’s college applicants believe that information about a college’s commitment to environmental sustainability would impact their decision to attend that school.

Sierra Magazine “Cool Schools” List. Now in its ninth year, Sierra Club ranks participating colleges and recognizes the best with a feature story in Sierra Magazine and highlights students’ stories. For 2015, it ranked 153 schools, providing highlights of the Top Ten.

From Classroom to Experience: A New Professional Certification for Sustainability Professionals

While colleges may be turning out graduates well versed in basic sustainability principles, businesses are seeing a growing need for more experienced sustainability professionals.  The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) is working to address this need by developing a Professional Certification in Sustainability that will define and standardize sustainability core competencies.

Similar to the LEED professional certifications, the ISSP Professional Certification will come in two levels. A Sustainability Associate credential will require passing an examination. A Certified Sustainability Professional will require further educational and work experience requirements. The program is currently in a beta test, and is expected to formally launch by the end of 2015.  Stay tuned for more information.

From our perspective, these developments are great harbingers of continuing positive change. Today’s college students are gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges they will confront when they graduate. With these programs, they will graduate with key skills, from critical thinking to life cycle analysis. These skills will help in the growing effort to plan, implement, and measure sustainability programs across all businesses. And as working professionals, they will receive support and professional recognition. In all cases, ultimately, we will all be the beneficiaries of their education. And we think that’s reason to be hopeful for the future.