GCSE Student-Led Sustainability Program Report

Sustainability is increasingly important  both within and beyond the classroom. As the world continues to face compounding ecological and social crises, achieving a dynamic and resilient society will require a shift in paradigm as well as pedagogy. Sustainability education is fundamental to preparing graduates to be successful systems thinkers, skilled sustainability professionals, and effective change agents. Therefore, higher education institutions face growing pressure to evolve sustainability education to holistically meet these demands, both in the classroom and on-campus. 

In this report, Harrison Freiman and Patrick Grady, two student interns with the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE), summarize their research of 100 U.S.-based institutions, their sustainability programs, on-campus commitments to sustainability, and experiential learning opportunities for sustainability students. The findings of this research return insight into the current state of sustainability education and point to potential, future directions for sustainability and sustainability-related education with the ultimate goal of shaping a more resilient society. 

The authors approached their research as undergraduate sustainability students in an effort to address, particularly, how sustainability education is framed for prospective students. Through intensive  website and program analysis, Freiman and Grady found that an obstacle to consensus is the variance among approaches and frameworks that higher education institutions employ in their sustainability programs. Different institutions posit sustainability differently, specifically in their program titles and descriptions, keywords, and respective commitments to sustainability within their curricula and on-campus opportunities. This results in inconsistent definitions, interpretations, and expectations of sustainability and a sustainability degree, which makes the preparedness of sustainability graduates unclear in addressing environmental problems and fulfilling sustainability positions within the professional world. 

Freiman and Grady shared preliminary results at the May 2023 GCSE Sustainability Education Community of Practice meeting. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here

Their presentation promoted rich discussion among CoP attendees and additional questions for future exploration:

  • How might an accreditation of sustainability programs bridge the gaps between student expectations, program content, degree level and institution type, learning outcomes, and professional preparedness for a sustainability career? 
  • What insight might be gained from studying an integration of sustainability content across an institution’s entire curricula, such as that seen at Dickinson College? 
  • How could an accreditation accommodate diverse cultures that posit sustainability as inherent to lifestyle and understanding, such as those found at the Tribal Colleges explored in this research project? What might we learn from them? 

In raising these questions, Freiman and Grady seek to guide not only our understanding of sustainability as a discipline, but also the capacity of higher education institutions to consistently prepare students across diverse backgrounds, settings, and interests. 


Click to download Freiman & Grady 2023 report