The State of Climate Change and Higher Education Today

The State of Climate Change and Higher Education Today

Posted on Jun. 04, 2021
Communicating to Prospective Study Away Students as the World Reopens
Communicating to Prospective Study Away Students as the World Reopens
Here’s What Adult Learners Look For in an Academic Program
Here’s What Adult Learners Look For in an Academic Program

By Cordelia Miller

Since President Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, his administration’s push for action toward sustainability in the face of climate change has been a major part of our national conversation. In contrast to the previous administration’s policies, Biden has moved to rejoin the Paris Accords, outlined ambitious policy goals that would push the US to be carbon neutral by 2050, and directed the Environmental Protection Agency to work on strictly regulating—and substantially decreasing—emissions. 

In the midst of all this progress, climate change is on the minds of many Americans—especially Gen Z. Officially comprising those born from 1997 to 2012, and therefore many of today’s (and tomorrow’s) undergrads and grad students, Gen Z is the generation most likely to currently report anxiety around climate change. (Source: VeryWell) What’s more, although older generations are more likely to report voting recently than voting-age Gen Z-ers, a greater share of Gen Z—32%—report participating in political action like a protest, donating, or volunteering for a candidate to address climate change than older generations like Gen X (23%) or Boomers (21%). (Source: Pew)

All this is happening even though many Gen Z-ers are coming out of the American K12 school system with little instruction in climate change. Although 40 states include climate change in their state learning standards, and 75% of public school teachers report teaching climate change, this often amounts to a few class sessions per year spent on climate change, when many would argue that what is really needed is consistent integration into curriculums year-round. (Source: The Campaign for Climate Literacy)

Some Gen Z-ers, eager to learn more, have even taken their climate change education into their own hands. Read about how a program in Florida is helping students educate themselves and their classmates.

In many ways, colleges and universities serving these Gen Z students are at the forefront of the movement to learn about and take action against climate change. In 2021, most higher education institutions not only have a robust science curriculum around climate change, but also are producing essential research and becoming community leaders around climate change. Harvard, for example, is helping the city of Boston build storm drains which will mitigate the effects of increased flooding due to climate change.

Students have long been at the forefront of activism on campus, and of climate change advocacy more broadly—including the university divestment protests of the 2010s, with the goal of pressuring schools to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, and the multinational school strikes led by Greta Thunberg. Especially considering the mental health implications of climate change, students should be viewed as true partners in efforts to educate about climate change and mitigate its results. Students should know what the campus is doing to help—and have a forum to give input and truly collaborate with campus leaders, along with opportunities to volunteer their time and energy. 

These opportunities shouldn’t be just for science majors—schools should make a real effort to reach students in other departments with activities appropriate for a broad range of interests and abilities. Schools should communicate the range of opportunities open to politically active students, from recycling clubs and green student representative programs to partnering with professors on climate change research and going into local schools to educate younger students. 

Students should also know that their university cares about sustainability, and will use its resources to help fight its negative impacts on their community and the broader world. Above all, schools should be serious about communicating to students the problems and impacts of climate change, as equipping students with information will empower them to create change within and without the campus community. 

As our climate continues to warm, students will continue to care about climate change advocacy efforts—and will want to attend schools that have robust programs in place for education and climate preparedness. Schools must communicate these programs to prospective and existing students and continue to engage their campus communities in order to retain these students today and in years to come. 

Does your school need help communicating with current or prospective students? Our full-service team can help with your communications needs, and Viv is well-versed in sustainability as a longtime member of the Sustainable Business Network. Contact us today for a free consult and see how we can help. Schedule a consult now.