College ‘sustainability’ initiatives are a burden on students

Will Simpson Contributor
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Universities across the country are coping with budget shortfalls by increasing tuition. In fact, over the past 30 years, college tuition costs have risen at nearly twice the rate of health care costs. Yet many universities are still funding climate change alarmists’ pet projects.

Colleges really want to help the environment. I do, too. I do not, however, want to spend a fortune on whole-hearted but half-witted initiatives that primarily satiate concerns of left-wing special interests.

As a student at the University of Arkansas, I’ve had a front-row seat to watch some trendy green initiatives unfurled by eco-planners. As a college, we have an institutional goal of “sustainability,” which sounds novel and noble.

But all that novelty will cost us over $1.1 million of precious tutition and donor dollars to initiate, and then $342,672 annually after that. Brown University already “invests” nearly $5 million annually in energy conservation.

On the national level, “green report cards” are all the rage, with investigators criss-crossing America, inspecting the carbon footprint each school creates and critiquing their eco-friendly initatives.

It sounds like a harmless idea. But some ideas never work out as intended.

College Sustainability Report Cards are issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. Grades are based on how active schools are in green programs. Schools can boost their scores by hiring full-time “sustainability staff,” writing green purchasing policies, buying carbon offsets, ponying up for organic goods, buying local food and fair trade coffee, or creating a department to measure their carbon footprints. And, believe me, college executives take their grades quite seriously.

Environmentalists argue that energy-saving policies can save money in the long run. But some of the green initiatives advocated by campus leftists have nothing to do with saving money; they just meet arbitrary carbon reduction goals.

Buying carbon offsets is a deadweight financial loss — it costs money upfront without saving a dime on total energy costs. Likewise, spending more money on organic fruit is not a cost-cutting move. The Green Report Card even punishes schools for not investing their endowments in renewable energy.

The eco-planners realize that their ideas are not always cost-effective. In a letter to students (which begins with “Hello Campus Climateers!”), the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education recommends implementing energy projects like solar, wind and biomass; only to immediately concede that “All of these tend to be expensive. Simple paybacks tend to be longer and CO2 benefits tend to be less than energy conservation measures.”

But it’s still worth it, they say. It’s about the principle. It’s symbolic. For example, notice the wind turbines that some colleges plop on top of random campus buildings, as if to crown them with eco-friendliness. A student report published on the New York University website lauds the turbines. If you’re questioning whether a single, small turbine can produce cost-effective energy, you’re on to something. The report calls it “symbolic,” clarifying that “These projects are generally presented as symbols of sustainability, rather than as economical or major investments.”

Some schools also require students to pay a seperate “sustainability student fee” or institute a carbon fee on top of parking permit prices. If sustainability programs saved money, these would be unnecessary and irrelevant.

Students are struggling to put themselves through school. We certainly cannot afford to pay for symbolic gestures to keep eco-activists happy.

Will Simpson is a Sarah T. Hermann Intern Scholar at the Young America’s Foundation.