For Sophia Watkins, crimson wasn't the only color that beckoned her to America's oldest college. Having grown up in Ecuador and traveled around the world, working with leatherback turtles in Costa Rica and on reforestation in Kenya and rainforest sustainability in Guyana, it was another color that brought her to Harvard University: green.
"You can't help but fall in love with nature and wildlife," said Watkins, 19. She applied to various colleges, including Swarthmore College, Middlebury College and Cornell University, looking into environmental science programs. "I remember reading a lot about it once I got into the schools," she said. But she was also interested in how the schools implemented their environmental and conservation programs on campus, instead of just labs and research.
In the end, Harvard's sustainability initiatives and grants swayed her. She is joining the class of 2015 and will study environmental science and public policy, though she is already in Cambridge, Mass., taking classes and attending weekly eco-film screenings.
Her environmental consciousness is even influencing her career ambitions. "In a sense, I would feel guilty making lots of money when the planet is not doing well," said Watkins. She hopes to find an environmentally friendly profession for herself after she finishes school.
While the Obama administration has been pushing green jobs, America's higher education institutions are involved in a related push. Winning the competition for students means green for them in more ways than one. As high school seniors schedule college visits and polish their personal statements, they are paying more attention to a college's green score alongside student-to-faculty ratios, dorms and aid packages.
Sustainability rankings compete with football
In turn, colleges are marketing their green initiatives more aggressively. Smaller schools, like College of the Atlantic and Middlebury, are using their programs as their calling cards, while even large, well-recognized brands, like Harvard, Georgia Institute of Technology and Arizona State University, are adding sustainability to their repertoire.
Colleges are also beginning to see that environmental initiatives have impacts on how their peers, along with their current and past students, perceive them. A school's reputation may hinge as much on its green credibility as it does on conference titles and championships.
"I think this trend is relatively new," said David Soto, director of college ratings at the Princeton Review, an educational services and test preparation company. "I think a lot of campuses are realizing that to attract top-tier students, they need to pay attention to sustainability."
Because of this, various groups are evaluating universities on their environmental commitments and making the results available for prospective students as well as college administrators. The Princeton Review, along with its list of 376 top colleges and school rankings for partying and academics, released its green ratings for 768 colleges last month. The annual list, now in its fourth year, scores colleges on a scale from 60 to 99, with 16 schools earning the highest score.
Other groups have established metrics for assessing green programs, as well. GreenReportCard.org is a free website where visitors can compare colleges side by side and see their letter grades on aspects of their green policies ranging from action on climate change and energy to green construction to shareholder engagement in environmental issues. The site is produced by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
Both rankings examine things like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification -- a program by the U.S. Green Building Council that sets parameters for efficiency in design, construction and maintenance -- recycling, renewable energy use and emissions. They also look at environmental research and green career training.
"[Green ratings are] definitely of keen interest to college-bound high school seniors," said Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute. "Anecdotally, I've been told by admissions staff and sustainability staff that this is a key factor."
Soto said that among prospective students and parents, 69 percent said that a campus's eco-friendliness would influence their decisions on where to apply, the most common concern behind financial aid and paying for school, according to a Princeton Review survey. "Certainly when I applied to college, I was not thinking about these things," he said.
And dormitories compete with one another
Until recently, many college administrators weren't thinking about environmental issues, either. Though Harvard established a sustainability office in 2001, it took pressure from the Environmental Action Committee (EAC), a student group, to enact a greenhouse gas reduction target. In 2008, a universitywide goal of a 30 percent reduction in emissions in eight years was set and a broader-scoped sustainability office was established.
"It was a very concrete goal," said Gracie Brown, a 2011 Harvard graduate in environmental science and public policy. Brown, 21, was very active in the EAC and also worked in the Resource Efficiency Program, a peer-to-peer program in which students go to houses and dorms to advise fellow students on sustainable practices. "I loved meeting so many people and hearing so many perspectives about one central issue," she said.
Brown and classmate Kurt Tsuo helped set up a program for incoming freshmen called Green 13, in which the incoming class of 2013 was introduced to the school's sustainability programs. Aspects of the program were integrated into the open house for admitted students and into orientation, where new students received reusable mugs. "As students were adjusting to their college lives, we could make being sustainable a big part of that," said Tsuo, 22.
The initiatives branch into the curriculum, as well, according to Heather Henriksen, director of the Harvard Office for Sustainability. An introductory computer science class built a website where students could track their dorm's energy consumption in real time. The class then held a contest to see which building could reduce its environmental impact the most. "That's an example of using our campus as a living laboratory," said Henriksen.
Though most applicants to Harvard wouldn't accept or turn down an offer based on sustainability alone, about 60 to 70 percent consider it a factor, observed Henriksen. This year, Harvard received a perfect score from the Princeton Review and a grade of A- from GreenReportCard.org. "Students are coming every year with more knowledge of environmental impacts and more awareness of their impact," she said.
Thus it is the students that end up driving environmental programs more than the administration, even though schools do save money by conserving resources. "Our office started and our sustainability efforts started because of the passion of our students," said Henriksen. "We get some our very best ideas from students."
Local food gets A's in the dining hall
Tsuo agreed: "Students pushed Harvard because other schools had taken leadership on [environmental issues], and Harvard had not yet gotten involved." He said that as a result, some other schools have taken notice and commenced their own sustainability initiatives.
However, some colleges have a longer history of environmentalism. With America's oldest environmental studies major, Middlebury College is an institution that has traditionally been a pioneer in sustainability. The school, cradled in the green hills of Vermont, is currently 50 percent powered by renewables and has set 2016 as a target date for being completely carbon-neutral. Environmental stewardship is even in the school's mission statement.
Yet the student body continues to push the school to do more for its campus in terms of the environment. "The students are not giving the college a free pass," said Ben Wessel, 22. Students at Middlebury, which received a green grade of A-, are pressuring the administration to have more local foods in the dining halls and more green construction. Like many students at the college, Wessel, who will graduate in February in the class of 2011.5 (Middlebury has a partial term in the winter), is also concerned with affecting policy not just at college, but around the world.
Earlier this year, he joined more than 200 of his fellow students -- 10 percent of Middlebury's student body and the largest delegation -- to travel to the nation's capital for Power Shift, a gathering of more than 12,000 students from around the country to learn about different strategies to combat climate change, in terms of both policy and technology.
"I think for me, a lot of it comes from growing up in D.C. and being a political creature," said Wessel, who has been interested in environmental activism since before he started college. "For me, it was the one political issue where young people have the last say."
As a senior in high school, he considered several colleges, including Brown University, Wesleyan University and Bowdoin College. In the end, he applied early decision to Middlebury, where the applicant is bound to attend the school if admitted.
"I was looking for a small school that was rigorous in academics," said Wesson. Though he was drawn by the environmental programs, he was also impressed with how sustainability permeated every field. "I didn't want to be pigeonholed as an enviro-nerd," he said.
Alumni contribute some green, too
Middlebury's green programs have substantially increased interest in the school across the country. "The fact that students can effect change on campus and beyond has definitely attracted the interest of prospective students and transfer students," said Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs at Middlebury, in an email. "In fact, the admissions office indicates that this area produces the highest yield of interest for prospective students in attending Middlebury College."
"That Middlebury students are seriously engaged in meaningful sustainability initiatives on campus that have a real impact definitely has an influence on prospective students and the college's profile," she said. As a result, the school actively advertises its green programs online, and a video featuring Wessel is featured prominently on its website for prospective students.
According to Soto at the Princeton Review, there are about 300 full-time sustainability officers are working at colleges across the United States, and 642 institutions offer degrees in environmental sustainability. "I think schools are embracing this. From a very practical perspective, students are the consumers and the customers of here," said Soto.
These programs benefit schools financially as energy usage is reduced over the long term, but they also make past students more inclined to donate. "A lot of alumni want to feel good about their institutions, and one of those ways is knowing their institution is offering real leadership on this issue," said Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury. "Middlebury alumni, I think they've been very proud about leadership in this field."
As a whole, colleges have been very receptive to sustainability programs. "As far as I know, nobody had to occupy the dean's office to get this stuff," said McKibben. "Administrators see improvements to their bottom line."
This fits into a broader trend of academic programs integrating aspects of sustainability into every field. "The hardest questions [about the environment] we have to answer at this point going forward are less scientific and more political and social and economic," said McKibben. "This isn't rocket science; it's a lot harder."