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Green Degrees: The State of Environmentally-Focused Education in 2022

Published: 2022-09-01T21:10:01+0000 Author: Tyler Bethke

Key Findings

  • More than 90,000 people graduated with green degrees and certificates last year, yet green degree and non-degree programs make up only 2% of American graduates
  • Chemical Engineering, Environmental Studies, and Environmental Science are the most popular green study programs
  • About 9% more Americans graduated from a green study program in 2021 than five years ago
  • Sustainability Studies is the fastest growing green program with 121% growth in the number of graduates in the last five years
  • Environmental Science and Environmental Studies are the most frequently taught green programs, both offered in over 600 schools in the U.S.
  • One in four (27%) of U.S. colleges and universities offer green study programs
  • Utah State University offers programs in 26 green fields of study - more than any other school in the country
  • Vermont (65%) and Montana (57%) have the highest percentage of schools that offer green degrees and non-degree programs

The Inflation Reduction Act - a legislative package passed by Congress on August 8 - should implement a series of transformative measures to tackle climate change. This Act includes initiatives from incentives to buy EVs to expansive investment in renewable energy and efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

As the scope of the effort to combat climate change grows with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, so will the demand for skills in renewable energy, sustainable engineering, and sustainability. As we wrote in our report on green jobs, the green workforce is at a healthy 800,000 workers and is projected to grow by 8% over the next decade.

Following on from our report on green jobs, we look at where green workers of the future will come from – education.

Climate, Energy, and Environment: Defining Green Study Programs

Much like with green jobs, there isn’t a hard and fast definition of green degrees. That said, most articles on the subject agree that they are programs that either focus solely on the environment and sustainability, or consider it in the context of the main discipline, such as:

  • Agriculture (Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture)
  • Biology (Soil Microbiology)
  • Engineering (Geoenvironmental Engineering)
  • Policy (Energy and Environmental Policy)
  • Economics (Environmental Economics)
  • Energy (Geothermal Energy Technology)
  • Law (Environmental Law)

In addition, we wanted to include programs training workers in the design, construction, and maintenance of renewable energy power stations using wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The final list consists of 98 green degree and non-degree programs alike, spanning all types of programs at the postsecondary level. The list includes degree programs such as associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral, as well as non-degree programs. By non-degree programs, we are referring to study programs at accredited institutions that don’t carry college credit and instead award diplomas, licenses, and certificates.

Top Fields: How Popular Are Green Study Programs?

Having outlined our understanding of green degrees, let’s look at the study programs that have attracted the most students in recent years.

Based on the figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, over 90,000 Americans graduated from a green study program in 2021, accounting for roughly 2% of all graduates in the country.

Based on the graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics covering 2016-2021, the degree with the largest graduating body is Chemical Engineering with an average of 13,340 graduates per year.

Though not explicitly an environmental major, Chemical Engineering is one of the critical fields of study underpinning important developments in emission reduction, combatting pollution, and making industries more sustainable.

Environmental Studies, an interdisciplinary program spanning sustainable development, environmental policies, ethics, ecology, sociology, and anthropology, comes in second with 8,740 graduates per year.

Its more scientifically inclined counterpart, Environmental Science, is in third with 8,120 Americans graduating annually.

Rounding out the top 10 is another degree that at first sight doesn’t belong on the green degree list – Petroleum Engineering with 2,560 graduates a year.

Reliance on fossil fuels like petroleum is a major contributing factor to climate change. However, due to said reliance, specialists in Petroleum Engineering take part in developing more sustainable practices of extracting and using crude oil and outlining pathways to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Part of the reason why engineering programs are so popular might be that various foundations, states and companies offer debt repayment options for this particular type of degree.

Leading the Charge: Fastest Growing Green Study Programs

Looking at the number of students graduating from environmentally focused programs over the past five years, a clear trend emerges.

According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 9% more Americans have graduated from green degree and non-degree programs in 2021 compared to five years ago.

What makes this figure even more impressive is that the growth in green education outpaces the growth in the overall number of graduates in the United States, which was at 5% over the same period.

With green study programs evidently on the rise, which majors are leading the way?

Ahead of the pack are Sustainability Studies, where the number of graduates more than doubled in the past five years, from 832 to 1,837 – a growth of 121%. Environmental Tourism (+89%) and Plant Protection (+85%) also boast an impressive over 80% growth in the same period.

Lower down the top 10 list are programs in Environmental Law (+48%), Environmental Economics (+36%), and Sustainable Agriculture (+33%), which are all perfect examples of degrees where traditional disciplines take on environmental focus and direction.

Environmental Studies for Everyone: Most Widely Available Green Study Programs

At just shy of 100,000 graduates a year, how accessible are eco-conscious study programs across the country?

Two majors are runaway leaders in terms of the availability of study programs across the United States. Degree and non-degree programs in Environmental Science and Environmental Studies are offered in over 600 colleges and universities.  

As many as 377 schools offer studies in Geography - a science focused on interrelationships of people, natural resources, and plant and animal life. Programs in Biotechnology (246) and Sustainability Studies (243) are on offer in almost 250 schools, while Chemical Engineering is taught in 200 colleges in the U.S.

North and Northwest: Top Places to Study for a Green Degree

Overall, over 1,600 colleges and universities in the United States offer programs in green fields of study. Meaning, every one in four, or 27% of Title IV institutions (i.e. ones that accept Federal Student Aid) in America offer at least one green study program.

Some schools, however, appear to be ahead of the pack.

Utah State University, for example, offers 26 different degree and certificate programs in all kinds of disciplines from Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology to Zoology & Animal Biology.

Four other schools, namely the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of California (Davis), University of Idaho, and the University of Washington have around 20 green study programs to offer. A further 62 schools offer between 10 and 19 such programs.

Similarly, green degree offering in some states is much stronger than in others. Among the states with at least 20 Title IV institutions, Vermont (65%) and Montana (57%) have the highest percentage of colleges and universities that offer green degree and non-degree programs.

Maybe even more noteworthy is the fact that in Washington and Wisconsin, the two states each with the number of institutions near 100, about half offer study programs in one of the green majors we identified.

Curiously enough, despite Utah State University being the top school by the number of green programs offered, only 9 out of 64 (14%) of colleges in the state of Utah have such programs available.

Other states where green programs aren’t that common include Texas, where just 21% of schools offer at least one green program, New Jersey (19%), and Florida (13%).

Degrees of the Future: 20 Emerging Green Programs to Watch

Of the 98 degree and non-degree programs we profiled as green, 20 don’t have any graduates yet.

Some of them, such as Climate Science, are studies in emerging fields that have recently become recognized as standalone academic pursuits. Others, such as Wind Energy System Installation and Repair Technology, cater to the growing demand for skills in the installation and maintenance of renewable energy stations.

Here are 20 degree and certification programs, which according to the National Center for Education Statistics are only becoming officially recognized from 2021 onwards:

Programs to be Officially Recognized from 2021 Onwards

  • Anthrozoology
  • Climate Science
  • Environmental & Socially-Engaged Art
  • Composite Materials Technology
  • Earth Systems Science
  • Energy and Environmental Policy
  • Energy Systems Engineering
  • Environmental Geosciences
  • Geography and Anthropology
  • Geography and Environmental Studies
  • Geothermal Energy System Installation and Repair Technology
  • Geothermal Energy Technology
  • Mathematics and Atmospheric/Oceanic Science
  • Power Plant Engineering
  • Process Safety Technology
  • Science, Health & Environmental Journalism
  • Solar Energy System Installation and Repair Technology
  • Urban and Community Horticulture
  • Wind Energy System Installation and Repair Technology
  • Wind Energy Technology

Sources, Methodology, and Data

The list of green degrees was compiled using The Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) database developed by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

To compile a list of green degrees we queried the National Center for Education Statistics database for keywords like “environment”, “ecology”, “sustainability”, “energy”, and “climate.”

As noted above, we included both programs with an explicit environmental focus (e.g. Environmental Economics), programs where significant regard for the environment is required for a well-rounded understanding of the field (e.g. Chemical Engineering), and those instrumental to the green economy of the future.  

On the other hand, we excluded degrees that could provide skills that would be instrumental in a green career, but are too generic or all-encompassing to suggest a direct link, e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, etc.

Data on the number of degree graduates and recipients of non-degree certificates was taken from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) – a system of interrelated surveys from about 6,400 colleges, universities, and technical and vocational institutions that participate in the federal student aid programs conducted by Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The number, name, and state of colleges and universities where the selected green programs are offered were all obtained from the NCES College Navigator.

To browse the data on each of the green degree and non-degree programs, please check the table below:


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