In terms of colleges degrees, the field of sustainability may be a new and trendy one, but as a field of practice, it’s as old as humanity. Ultimately, nothing continues unless it is sustainable. Every culture that has survived through the ages has implicitly recognized and pursued this organizing principle.
But today, society has begun to understand how fragile our world and culture can be, and to value the intentionality of pursuing sustainability as a science.
Sustainability degrees focus on the intersection of environmental, social/cultural and economic systems through the lenses of the sciences, social sciences and humanities. The study of sustainability includes not only environmental sciences and social sciences, but also the study of social and cultural systems, from history to anthropology to philosophy to cultural diversity.
Those degrees fall into broad categories. You can visit the following pages on our site for comprehensive listings of the schools that offer each type of degrees program:
- Environmental Engineering Degrees
- Environmental Science Degrees
- Online Sustainability Degrees
- Sustainable Architecture & Design Degrees
- Sustainable Business Degrees
- Sustainable Public Policy Degrees
- Sustainable Technology Degrees
Though such degrees have a definite focus, you’ll find that all of them include some elements of both science and policy. There are good reasons for that multidisciplinary approach to sustainability education.
Sustainability professionals working in policy or business need to have a firm understanding of the latest science to develop effective practices; those entering the sciences need the soft skills to appeal to the public and decision-makers when advocating for those practices.
While many schools offer degree programs focused on the environmental aspects of sustainability (especially environmental science and social sciences), a growing number of schools are expanding these programs or creating new programs that focus on sustainability itself.Degrees in sustainability and other related areas are available for students at every level, from undergrads preparing for entry level positions or laying the groundwork for further study, to grad students looking to make serious career moves and take on more influential positions.
- Associate’s Degrees in Sustainability
- Bachelor’s Degrees in Sustainability
- Master’s Degrees in Sustainability
- Doctorate Degrees in Sustainability
Sustainability Degrees by State
Associate’s Degrees in Sustainability
There are relatively few degrees in sustainability available at the two-year level. You will usually find that they are focused on very specific industries and job skills, such as the Associate of Applied Science in Environmental Technologies and Sustainable Practices – Business Emphasis program at Cascadia College in Washington State, which focuses on energy use and reduction topics.
Although you won’t find much of the broad-based policy and science education that other sustainability degrees offer, you will learn specific, hands-on job skills that make you immediately employable after graduation. You can also use your associate’s degree as a building block to go on to a more advanced bachelor’s degree in the field.
A two-year degree can also be useful when it comes to earning promotions or opening up career options when combined with previous on-the-ground experience.
Degree Types at the Associate’s Level in Sustainability
Associate’s degrees come in three basic flavors:
- Associate of Arts– Includes more liberal arts courses
- Associate of Science– Business and technical science emphasis
- Associate in Applied Science– Scientific and practical skills emphasis, may not be eligible for transfer
Most sustainability degrees today are AS or AAS degrees. Because many colleges have a strict policy on transfer degree curriculum content, if you plan to advance to a bachelor’s program you will want to be sure to check on whether or not the associate’s degree you are considering will be accepted at the school you will attend for your bachelor’s.
Prerequisites and Curriculum
You can get into most two-year programs with nothing more than a high school diploma or GED. Some schools may require coursework in specific subjects such as math or science, but you can typically fulfill this at the college level if you haven’t taken it in high school.
Curriculums are highly focused on technical details relating to the degree. For an AAS in Sustainable Agriculture, for example, you can expect courses heavy on food production and crop science, with a limited number of electives.
Jobs and Salary at the Associate’s Level
Like other career paths in sustainability, jobs you can achieve with an associate’s degree are lucrative and there is a lot of room for advancement. Entry-level positions are available in a wide range of business and government agencies.
Environmental Science and Protection Technician is one example of a position open to associate’s degree holders. The median annual wage according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS) is $45,490. But that salary can vary according to location:
- New York: $55,950
- Los Angeles: $55,560
- Chicago: $45,930
- Houston: $46,620
- Phoenix: $42,910
- Atlanta: $45,300
Bachelor’s Degrees in Sustainability
A bachelor’s degree is increasingly considered the bare minimum for entry-level career positions in sustainability work.
The broad scope of a bachelor’s education, including not only the scientific and operational principles behind sustainability, but the historical and liberal arts subjects that tie those principles to modern culture and development, is perfect preparation for a career in sustainability.
A transfer associate’s degree may smooth the path and effectively offer about half the credits required for graduation before you even enroll. Your SAT or other standardized test scores will be carefully considered as well.
There are several broad categories of bachelor-level degrees you will encounter in the sustainability field. They will all fall into one of two types:
- Bachelor of Arts– A classical degree with heavy coursework in traditional liberal arts, designed primarily to foster critical thinking skills and offer a well-rounded education.
- Bachelor of Science– A more heavily technically focused degree, with more math and science courses and less general knowledge education.
- Bachelor of Business Administration– Technically focused, as with a BS, but on elements of business, accounting, and economics instead of science.
A BS is usually seen as offering more immediate and practical career skills, while a BA provides long-term analytical and communication skills applicable in almost any area. Either degree is a solid launchpad for a master’s program, however.
Environmental Engineering and Science Bachelor’s
This category focuses more on the hard science and engineering aspects of building sustainable systems to support society. It can include agricultural sustainability, energy sustainability, and environmental mitigation.
Degrees in this category can include titles such as:
- Bachelor of Art in Environmental Science
- Bachelor of Science in Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture
- Bachelor of Science in Environment and Sustainability
An environmental specialist is one job you can find that a degree in this category will prepare you for. According to the BLS,the median annual wage is $69,400 and the job outlook shows a growth rate of 11 percent over the next decade, faster than average in the United States.
As with most jobs, you’ll find that those salaries vary widely according to geographic location and demand.
- New York: $82,050
- Los Angeles: $86,800
- Chicago: $88,600
- Houston: $93,500
- Tallahassee: $49,320
- Minneapolis: $76,340
- Seattle: $83,400
Sustainability and Environmental Policy Bachelor’s
These degrees focus most on the public policy aspects of sustainability, with a curriculum designed to foster ecological literacy, responsible environmental citizenship, and inform students on the mechanics of environmental law, urban planning, and policy development.
Specific degree titles include:
- Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Development
- Bachelor of Sustainability
- Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs – Sustainable Management and Policy
- Bachelor of Science in Community Development
Many of the jobs in this focus area will be with governmental agencies, although some business entities also need good policy analysts.
Sustainability specialist is one job title you will find in this area. They focus on planning and compliance issues in sustainability and work in both government and business.
The field is so new that BLS doesn’t have an independent estimate of salaries, but instead includes the position in with Business Operations Specialists,for whom the mean annual wage is $75,740. O-Net rates the category as having a Bright Outlook,with more than 100,000 new positions opening in the next decade.
Sustainable Business Bachelor’s
Business-oriented sustainability degrees are becoming hot commodities for American corporations. Both national and international law is pushing sustainable practices in development and in resource use, while the market rewards the efficiencies that come with sustainable business growth.
Experts in this type of business learn about societal and scientific aspects of sustainability while studying eco-friendly materials development, global supply chain and business operations, and the economic patterns of international markets. Degree titles include:
- Bachelor of Arts in Business with Sustainability Focus
- Bachelor of Sustainability
- Bachelor of Arts of Sustainable Management
- Bachelor of Science in Business Administration – Sustainability Management
The array of jobs in business springing up around sustainability is almost too broad to catalog, ranging across areas such as:
One such job is as a regulatory affairs manager. Responsible for evaluating and satisfying regulatory agency rules and procedures, most major businesses rely on these highly-educated individuals to remain both legal and competitive.
They fall into the BLS category of compliance officer,for whom the median annual salary in 2017 was $71,540.
There are regional variations in compensation, however:
- New York: $81,910
- Los Angeles: $81,450
- Chicago: $74,270
- Houston: $83,610
- Tallahassee : $41,650
- Atlanta: $63,220
- Seattle: $94,790
Master’s Degrees in Sustainability
A master’s degree in sustainability is typically a one to two year study of advanced topics designed to give you expert knowledge and leadership skills in the field.
A master’s degree will put you at or near the top tier for both salary and professional prestige in sustainability careers.
You will find that some schools offer joint degrees, where two master’s degrees in different, but related, fields are earned simultaneously. You will also encounter master of arts and master of science degrees, which are viewed as offering more in-depth analytical and communication training and more in-depth scientific and research experience respectively. The Master in Business Administration is similarly specialized in accounting, economics, and other business skills.
Most master’s programs have very high standards for applicants, particularly programs as in-demand as those in sustainability. They might include:
- Holding a bachelor’s degree (although not necessarily in the same field)
- Having a minimum undergraduate GPA
- Having work experience in the field
- Taking and passing entrance exams
- Submitting recommendations or essays
Environmental Engineering and Science Master’s
Environmental and sustainability engineering is the core of the mechanical side of the field, where genuine solutions are devised and built to address the hard problems of environmental sustainability. Degrees that educate you in these scientific practices include:
- Master of Science and Engineering in Sustainability Engineering
- Master of Science in Environmental Science and Monitoring
- Master of Science in Environmental Sciences
- Master of Architecture – Sustainable Buildings
You may learn about everything from sustainable materials development to alternative energy sources to water quality considerations. You will probably participate in cutting-edge research in the field and make meaningful contributions even while you are studying.
The type of jobs you will find open to you with a master’s in this category tend to be highly technical and require a great deal of experience and expertise.
Environmental engineer is one such position. In 2017, the BLS tracked the median salary at $86,800 per yearfor these jobs. But you will find lower or higher salaries depending on what area of the country you take a position in.
- New York: $97,190
- Los Angeles: $89,700
- Chicago : $83,080
- Denver: $102,600
- Atlanta: $70,970
Sustainability and Environmental Policy Master’s
Degrees in this category prepare you to tackle problems that are much harder, in many cases, than the purely technical issues of sustainability. Instead, you’ll be equipped with the history, communication skills, and problem-solving tools to find common ground between competing public and private interest groups, and learn how to craft regulations that are both effective and economically efficient.
Degrees in this category may have titles like:
- Master of Science in Energy Policy and Science
- Master of Public Health – Environmental and Occupational Health Focus
- Master of Science in Environmental Studies
You’ll find jobs in both the public and private sector with a master’s degree in this category. Climate Change Analyst is one such position. Facing off against the greatest threats to humanity that may be around the corner takes a high level understanding of both science and politics.
O-Net ranks this position as one with a Bright Outlook,with 10-15 percent growth over the next decade, and estimates the 2017 median wage at $69,400. Salaries are not as variable due to regionality with this type of work, outside of typical cost-of-living adjustments… the data, and threat, are global in nature.
Sustainability Leadership and Management Master’s (including MBAs)
While other types of degrees look at either the big picture of public policy or the nitty-gritty of technical details, managing the nuts and bolts of adaptation in the system of commerce falls to professionals who have studied leadership and management in every aspect of business. Knowledge of accounting, economics, transport, human resources, and other fundamentals of the modern enterprise are critical components in the sustainability process.
You’ll find that kind of education in degrees like:
- Master of Science in Sustainability Management
- Green Master of Business Administration
- Master of Business Administration in Sustainable Enterprise
- Master of Business Administration with Energy and Environment Focus
Chief Sustainability Officer is an example of the type of position you will be qualified to hold after earning a master’s degree in this category. These positions earn around $200,000 per year and can be found in both the public and private sector; for example, the United States Postal Service CSO is estimated by GlassDoorto bring in between $166,000 and $180,000 annually.
Doctorate Degrees in Sustainability
Pursuing a PhD in sustainability studies will put you among a select few in the field. If there are secrets at the heart of the fundamental tension between consumption and sustainability, they are being unlocked and solved by researchers with doctoral degrees.
At the doctoral level, you are often expected to create your own curriculum. That allows for a high level of specialization, but demands an enormous amount of discipline and hard work. Experimentation and research are fundamental components of degrees awarded at this level, so you need not only the academic chops to investigate new ideas, but also the comprehension and communication skills to digest data and articulate it in a way that is meaningful, even to those outside the scientific community.
Many PhD programs will accept applicants with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, as long as they have been awarded by regionally accredited institutions. More than at any other level, your personal presentation and goals will be a large part of the evaluation during the application process. You should have a documented background of interest and action in the field.
Your undergraduate or graduate GPA will be considered, and you may be required to take a graduate admissions test or document requisite professional experience.
Doctorates are Rare in the Field of Sustainability, but Important
There are relatively few doctoral programs focused on sustainability. You are likely to find them under titles like these:
- Doctor of Philosophy in Ecosystem Sustainability
- Doctor of Philosophy in Sustainability
- Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Engineering
- Doctor of Philosophy in Planning, Design, and Construction
However, these programs may have very different focuses even though they have the same title. Some may concentrate on the sustainability of the environment, while others look at sustainable productions systems from a business and social angle, as is the case with the one available at Rochester Institute of Technology. There are even doctoral degrees that investigate sustainable tourism and protected area management.
The field is new enough that you will help to define it as a PhD candidate.
Earning a doctorate degree in a sustainability field represents the peak of learning and research attainment. That doesn’t always correspond to the highest levels of compensation; pursuits in academia or global thinktanks offer the opportunity to become a thought leader in sustainability but not necessarily a millionaire.
The most likely occupation for someone holding a doctoral degree in sustainability will be as a professor, teaching in the field. Glass Door shows an estimated base pay of between $56,000 and $60,000 for a full professor teaching in sustainable development.
Whatever degree you go for, you will find no shortage of new opportunities emerging in this wide-open field in the coming years, and in one way or another, they all contribute to putting the planet back on a sustainable path.