10 Best Colleges for Environmental Science Majors

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Environmental science is a growing area of study, and hundreds of colleges and universities have bachelor's degree programs in the field. Because of the subject's interdisciplinary nature, colleges may offer the major under different names or with specific areas of specialization. Environmental studies, environmental biology, environmental chemistry, environmental engineering, ecology, sustainability studies, and conservation biology are some of the many options. It's also possible that environmental science courses are housed entirely within a college's biology or geology department.

Regardless of the disciplinary structure of a college, the best schools for environmental science share many characteristics. All will have strong programs in natural sciences such as chemistry and biology. All will have excellent lab facilities on campus. All have readily available opportunities for students to conduct independent research and fieldwork both during the semester and over breaks. In addition, all strong environmental studies programs will have faculty members who truly specialize in the subject. This latter point is significant, for although many schools offer environmental programs to meet student demand, not all of them devote significant resources to the programs. Look for schools that are investing in creating strong environmental programs with dedicated faculty experts, rather than a patchwork of existing courses in other disciplines.

All of the colleges and universities below (listed in alphabetical order) offer highly regarded environmental science programs. While there are many other excellent programs available, the schools on this list are a good place to start your search thanks to their excellent campus resources, dedicated faculty members, and impressive placement of graduates into jobs or graduate schools.

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Colorado College

Colorado College

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Located in Colorado Springs, Colorado College's location in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains combined with its proximity to the deserts, forests, and canyons of the Southwest, make it an ideal place for conducting fieldwork. Students can choose from majors in Environmental Science or the more interdisciplinary field of Environmental Studies. The college also offers an Environmental Chemistry track, a minor in Environmental Issues, and popular biology programs including Organismal Biology and Ecology.

Because the Environmental Studies program has an entirely undergraduate focus, students will find it easy to work side-by-side with faculty members and gain access to the laboratory resources in the Tutt Science Building.

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Cornell University

USA, New York, Ithaca, Cornell University
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Cornell University's 2,300-acre campus in Ithaca, New York, overlooks Lake Cayuga in the beautiful Finger Lakes region. The university has some of the world's best programs related to the environment, natural resources, and sustainability. At the undergraduate level, the Environment and Sustainability major is offered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

A member of the Ivy League, Cornell is a research powerhouse. Students can take courses or conduct independent research that takes advantage of university facilities including the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Little Moose Field Station in the Adirondacks, Cornell Biological Field Station on Oneida Lake, Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, and the numerous forest, field, and water resources on and near campus. The university offers 10-week undergraduate research internships at some of these facilities in the summer.

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Duke University

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Located in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University is part of the Research Triangle with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. The university is the most prestigious and selective research university in the Southeast, and its Nicholas School of the Environment has a strong international reputation. The school offers three undergraduate majors: Earth & Ocean Sciences, Environmental Sciences & Policy, and Marine Science & Conservation. The school also offers certificates (much like a minor) in Marine Science & Conservation Leadership, Energy & Environment, and Sustainability Engagement.

Unique opportunities at Duke include the ability to live and study at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. The facility has state-of-the-art labs for studying marine organisms as well as three research vessels available for charter. Duke also owns the 7,000-acre Duke Forest where students can study the stewardship of natural resources. On the co-curricular side of a Duke education, students can choose from a broad range of clubs, societies, and organizations including the Duke Society of American Foresters, Duke Sustainability Board, Duke Conservation Society, and Sustainable Oceans Alliance.

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Harvard University

Harvard University

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Students interested in environmental issues have multiple options at Harvard University. In 2018, the school launched its Environmental Science and Engineering concentration (the equivalent of a major) offered through the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Through this STEM-heavy program, students examine issues including global warming, air and water pollution, and ozone depletion. Students gain a broad foundation in physics, chemistry, oceanography, hydrology, ecology, and other disciplines to gain a broad multi-disciplinary perspective from which to tackle environmental challenges.

For students who are interested in the social and political side of environmental issues, Harvard offers a concentration in Environmental Science and Public Policy. Students will still take a range of science courses, but they will also study some of the political, economic, historical, and ethical issues interwoven with our efforts to solve environmental challenges.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard is a member of the Ivy League, and it often ranks as the most selective university in the nation with an acceptance rate of around 5%.

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Stanford University

Hoover Tower, Stanford University - Palo Alto, CA
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The Stanford School of Earth, Energy, & Environmental Sciences—simply called Stanford Earth—is home to the departments of Geophysics, Geological Sciences, Energy Resources Engineering, and Earth System Science. Undergraduates have the opportunity to do field research on all seven continents, and the university has many opportunities for students to conduct research with faculty members throughout the year. The school emphasizes skills in the data sciences, and students can take courses including earth imaging, global positioning systems, remote sensing, data for sustainable development, and data for geoscience.

With an endowment nearing $30 billion, Stanford has the resources to support a wealth of undergraduate research. The Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) program offers grants ranging from $1,500 to $7,000 to support independent research projects. The Beagle II Award offers up to $12,000 to support student research that depends on travel, and SESUR, the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program, provides students with the opportunity to work with faculty members in the summer on projects related to the environment.

Located in California's Bay Area, Stanford University is similar to Harvard for selectivity. Only about 5% of applicants are admitted.

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University of California, Berkeley

University of California Berkeley

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The University of California, Berkeley is home to the Rausser College of Natural Resources where undergraduate can choose from five majors within the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management: Conservation and Resource Studies, Environmental Sciences, Forestry and Natural Resources, Molecular Environmental Biology, and Society and Environment. All Environmental Studies majors conclude their degree with a your-long senior research project.

Opportunities for engagement outside of the classroom include the Cal Energy Corps, an undergraduate internship program focused on sustainable energy and climate solutions. Students work for 12 weeks in the summer with a partner organization. Berkeley's facilities also include the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station on Moorea Island in French Polynesia where students can conduct field research and training.

UC Berkeley is one of the nation's top public universities, and it is also one of the most selective, with an acceptance rate of around 15%.

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University of California, Davis

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The University of California, Davis has impressive depth in fields related to the environment. The university's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences offers majors in Environmental Science and Management, Environmental Toxicology, Environmental Horticulture and Urban Forestry, Hydrology, Marine and Coastal Science, Sustainable Environmental Design, and others. The College of Engineering offers a degree in Environmental Engineering.

Students majoring in Environmental Science and Management study the environment from physical, biological, and social perspectives. Within the major, students can choose from six tracks: Climate Change & Air Quality; Ecology, Biodiversity, & Conservation; Geospatial Information Science; Natural Resource Management; Soils & Biogeochemistry; and Watershed Science. All majors gain hands-on experience through an internship, and the program also has many study abroad opportunities.

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University of Minnesota—Twin Cities

Pillsbury Hall at the University of Minnesota
Pillsbury Hall at the University of Minnesota.

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The Universiity of Minnesota—Twin Cities is home to several programs related to the study of the environment. Through the College of Liberal Arts, students can earn a BA in Biology, Society, and Environment, a BS in Environmental Geosciences, and a BA or BS in Earth Sciences. The College of Science and Engineering offers a bachelor's in Environmental Engineering, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences has three bachelor of science options: Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management; Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology; and Forest and Natural Resource Management.

Within the Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management (ESPM) major, students can choose one of four tracks to match their interests and career goals: Conservation and Resource Management, Environmental Education and Communication, Environmental Science, and Policy, Planning, Law and Society.

Related student groups include the ESPM Student Association, Voices for Environmental Justice, Outdoor Club, and Energy and Environmental Policy Club. Students can also get involved in research through the university's many centers including the Institute on the Environment, Water Resources Center, and centers for the study invasive plants and aquatic species. Research centers are located throughout Minnesota.

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University of Washington

The University of Washington

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Located in Seattle, the University of Washington's College of the Environment offers a wealth of options for undergraduate and research focused on the environment. The university has three research vessels and numerous smaller boats for exploring the local coastline, Puget Sound, and the Pacific Ocean. The school's Friday Harbor Laboratories give students access to the San Juan Islands and the outer coast. Other centers and programs include the Alaska Salmon Program in Bristol Bay, UW Botanic Gardens with over 10,000 specimens, and the Olympic Natural Resources Center that brings together the study of forestry and marine sciences.

University of Washington undergraduates can choose from eight majors offered by the College of the Environment: Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, Bioresources and Engineering, Earth and Space Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Terrestrial Resource Management, Environmental Studies, Oceanography, and Marine Biology. The college also offers nine minors and 16 graduate degrees. In all, the college has about 1,500 students and 1,000 faculty and staff members conducting research on all of the world's continents and oceans.

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Yale University

The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University
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Located in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs through its School for the Environment. At the undergraduate level, the Environmental Studies major brings together perspectives from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to give students the broad tools they need to solve the world's complex environmental issues. Both BA and BS programs are offered. All undergraduates also have the option of a five-year program that culminates in a master's degree in either Environmental Management or Environmental Science.

With an endowment of over $30 billion, Yale has the resources to be a leader in research. The school is home to numerous centers and programs including the Carbon Containment Lab, Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering, Tropical Resource Institute, and the SEARCH Center (Solutions for Energy Air, Climate, and Health).

EcoLeague Colleges

McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center at Northland College
McLean Environmental Living and Learning Center at Northland College.

Courtesy of Northland College

Lists such as this one nearly always favor larger, highly selective, nationally ranked research universities. Such schools, however, are certainly not the best or most realistic choice for many applicants.

For students who are looking for smaller and often more accessible colleges committed to studying and protecting the environment, the EcoLeague is worth careful consideration. The EcoLeague is a consortium of six small liberal arts colleges from across the United States. All member schools share a mission focused on sustainability and the study of ecosystems.

The six EcoLeague schools span the country from Maine to Alaska, and students have exchange opportunities with member schools.

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage is home to about 340 undergraduates and a few hundred graduate students. The school offers bachelor's degree offerings include Marine & Environmental Science, Outdoor Studies, and Environmental Public Health.
  • College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, is home to 360 students who all study human ecology. Areas of specialization include climate change, environmental law, and marine science. The school has an enviable Mt. Desert Island location right on Frenchman Bay
  • Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is the largest of the EcoLeague members with over 2,100 undergraduates. The school offers both a B.S. in environmental science and a B.A. in environmental studies.
  • New College of Florida is located in Sarasota, and the campus sits on the edge of a bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Home to about 700 undergraduates, the school is the designated Honors College of Florida's public university system. New College has a marine science research center located on the main campus.
  • Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, sits next to Lake Superior and over a million acres of National Forest. Home to about 600 students, the school's majors reflect its location. Options include environmental studies, natural resources, sustainable agriculture, water science, ecological restoration, and wildlife ecology.
  • Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, is home to roughly 500 undergraduates and an equal number of graduate students. The school's location – surrounded by Granite Mountain, Prescott National Forest, and Thumb Butte – makes it a great place for conducting fieldwork, including opportunities at Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies.
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Grove, Allen. "10 Best Colleges for Environmental Science Majors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/best-colleges-environmental-science-5085307. Grove, Allen. (2021, August 3). 10 Best Colleges for Environmental Science Majors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/best-colleges-environmental-science-5085307 Grove, Allen. "10 Best Colleges for Environmental Science Majors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/best-colleges-environmental-science-5085307 (accessed March 23, 2023).