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ESG in higher education: From strategy to execution

A deliberate ESG strategy can help higher education institutions recruit students, staff and faculty, but who should develop the strategy?

In brief

  • The different facets of ESG require the backing of different stakeholders at higher ed institutions. But it starts with the board and president.
  • Colleges and universities need to decide what is leading them to prioritize sustainability, what their goals are and what is the strategy to achieve them.
  • Decide which approaches you will take to reduce emissions, what infrastructure changes are feasible now and what will have the most impact.

Like in many other sectors, higher education leaders and boards recognize that their key constituents want to be part of purpose-led organizations that are doing the right thing. A deliberate environment, social and governance (ESG) strategy, accompanied by a coherent framework of actions and transparent communications about the impacts of these actions, can go a long way in helping an institution attract and retain students, faculty and staff, while also enhancing relationships with the wider community.

While an ESG strategy requires support at the highest levels of the organization to signal commitment, it also needs to be embraced throughout the organization to actually take hold and deliver results.

Focusing on environment, the first part of ESG, the EY-Parthenon team found that 75% of 176 institutions surveyed in February 2022 indicate that environmental sustainability is important to them, as well as to their stakeholders (Figure 1). The survey included finance, operations and academic administrators at universities across the US.

But how institutions plan to reach their goals is changing. Institutions initially relied on more easily implemented strategies, such as education of students, faculty and staff to change behavior; upgrading campus infrastructure and building technology to improve energy efficiencies; and on-campus initiatives such as local food sourcing for dining halls or tree-planting. Having addressed a lot of the “low-hanging fruit,” institutions are now increasingly turning to opportunities that decrease reliance on fossil fuels and increase usage of renewable energy sources. These strategies include producing or purchasing renewable energy (to address scope 2 emissions) or leveraging public-private partnerships to deploy a range of new technologies to address scope 1 emissions.


Our report may help education leaders:

  • Determine what is driving institutions to prioritize environmental sustainability and how to set sustainability-related goals
  • Develop a structure to meet those goals
  • Determine the structures, people, systems and funding needed to execute that strategy

Download our report to learn more

Special thanks to Aurelien Guichard, Jennifer Leitsch and Shannon Roberts for their contributions.


Reducing a college or university’s carbon footprint is a big undertaking. But a well-thought-out plan to drive environmental sustainability is one element to a wider ESG strategy, which can make a higher education institution attractive to students, faculty and staff who want to be associated with a purpose-led organization.

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