Go green? Growth potential is strong for degree programs around climate

More than 1,500 colleges and universities have tracks that focus on the environment, but more are needed as national workforce expands.

Should institutions of higher education intent on meeting employer demand and focusing on the future consider growing green pathways for students or boosting the number of green degrees they are offering?

Given the impacts of climate change and the lean in now from the federal government on sustainability–as part of passage of the Inflation Reduction Act–the need for workers will accelerate in the years ahead, according to a jobs report released by eco-friendly products company PromoLeaf. From Bureau of Labor Statistics data, they project that the green workforce will rise by 8.6% in 10 years to more than one million employees overall.

“Not only is the overall growth rate for green jobs higher than for the overall workforce, some of the green occupations are among the fastest-growing in the entire country,” PromoLeaf company officials note. From solar photovoltaic installers to forest fire inspectors to leadership roles in recycling, the company says conservatively that more than 100,000 new positions will be available in the coming years.

What does that mean for colleges and students? Opportunity. Right now, only 27% of all institutions offer some type of green degree program. Adding environmentally focused tracks while removing ones that generate very little interest might be a smart and yes, sustainable, investment.

It also might be lucrative for students who can reach completion. Natural science managers, at the top of the chart, make more than $137,000 per year. Environment engineers clear $95,000. The openings for workers in those two jobs right now alone total 100,000. Meanwhile, biologists and geoscientists make north of $82,000, or $24,000 more than the average worker.

For the most part, higher education–save for some forward-thinking institutions such as Utah State University–have been slow to dive in. PromoLeaf says only 2% of students across higher ed who reach completion each year have green degrees. However, graduates with degrees or certificates in green fields have jumped by 9% in the past few years. Utah State leads the way with 26 fields of study but others like the University of Idaho, University of Illinois, University of Washington and UC-Davis all have 20 or more programs. The states with the biggest concentration of green programs are Vermont and Montana.

More from UB: Despite interest, neither students nor employers favor skills over college degrees

So what encompasses a green degree program? While the term is a bit nebulous, it can cover a variety of fields, including expected ones such as biology and energy and the unexpected such as law and economics. Just about anything that has a connection to the environment and climate change can fit, though Promoleaf identified 98 specific programs from National Center for Education Statistics data. Many are labeled by institutions under environmental science. Chemical engineering generates the largest numbers of degree holders annually, while sustainability studies are among the fastest growing.

Among the potentially 20 hottest degree possibilities, noted by PromoLeaf through a look at NCES, are earth systems science, wind energy technology, energy and environmental policy and climate science. Vanderbilt University is one that jumped in last March by launching a major in climate science.

“We built this major at a time of growing recognition among the highest levels of scholarship and research that climate change is fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem that requires research and synthesis of knowledge across many disciplines,” sociology professor and program director David Hess said. “Part of the motivation for creating this major is to address the global need to train the world’s future leaders in interdisciplinary approaches to climate change and other great challenges facing society.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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