A lone student at College of the Atlantic studies beneath a tree on campus in Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Isle in March 2020. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

It isn’t easy being green, but College of the Atlantic has it pretty much figured out — and thinks other campuses can do it, too.  

College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor has been ranked the top green college by the Princeton Review for the sixth year in a row. The school has inherent advantages, such as the fact that it was founded with environmental sustainability in mind — the only degree it offers is a bachelor of arts in human ecology — and sits at the doorstep of Acadia National Park.

Still, the college has long been a leader in sustainability, achieving carbon neutrality in 2007 and divesting the school’s endowment from fossil fuels in 2013. Despite those achievements, College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins said that the school’s most important element of its sustainability work is student involvement.

“If you’re going to rank institutions based on pure kilowatt hours derived from solar panels, we’re a small institution so University of California is going to destroy us in that ranking,” Collins said. “But when you get rankings that try to get to student learning and what student motivations are, I think you’re going to find it hard to come up with a college that does that better and and more thoroughly or thoughtfully than College of the Atlantic.”

The Princeton Review’s methodology for choosing its greenest colleges includes institutional steps toward sustainability, including waste diversion, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It also weighs student surveys and ratings of how sustainability issues influenced their education and life on campus, support for environmental awareness and conservation efforts, and the visibility and impact of student environmental groups.

“If I were to wave my magic wand and cover every rooftop with photovoltaic panels, as great as that might be, if students don’t learn something from the process, that’s not what we’re after,” Collins said.

Solar energy projects on campus are a great example of how students have been involved in the sustainability decisions on campus since the 1970s.

“It’s a great hands-on approach that gives students a real understanding of when you flick a light switch, it’s not magic, it has to come from somewhere,” Collins said. “The process of developing a kind of energy literacy is really important.”

Just this fall, the College of the Atlantic opened its new Davis Center for Human Ecology — a process that Collins said students were involved with at every step, from architect selection to design and development.

“The goal of course is to have a sustainable building, to have a net zero building, but it’s also to teach students and have students exposed to the building process across the time frame of the build,” Collins said.

Student involvement not only gets projects done, but also trains the next generation of sustainability experts, according to David Gibson, the school’s director of energy.

“For all of these students, even if it’s not a career path they end up following, it’s something they can apply to every home they live in going forward,” Gibson said.

For student Eli Johnson, the school’s greenest college ranking had a lot to do with why he and many of his peers applied in the first place. Now, he is the co-chair of the Campus Committee for Sustainability and supports other students’ projects.

“Whether starting an initiative to recycle plastic on campus, figuring out how to filter microplastics in student laundry, or trying to reimagine discarded resources management, I am always impressed and inspired by my peers and their visions for the future,” Johnson said.

Collins is proud of the ranking and the fact that it draws students into the College of the Atlantic. He feels the school’s multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world has inspired other schools, too.

“If you were to look at the number of colleges in the country who now emphasize the importance of such multi- or interdisciplinary approaches, you would be astounded — there are very many,” Collins said. “I can confidently say that College of the Atlantic was a really important lever for change in that direction and a lever on the very leading edge.”

Though College of the Atlantic has sustainability advantages built into its DNA, achieving what it has shouldn’t be impossible for other schools. Gibson said that “collaboration and communication” at all levels — from groundskeepers to students to faculty — is key for any college that wants to be more sustainable.

Meanwhile, there are more projects on the horizon. College of the Atlantic has committed to eliminating the use of fossil fuels entirely from their heating systems, electricity and transport by 2030.