The Sustainability Case for Online Universities

As traditional brick-and-mortar colleges experience an influx in enrollment, many institutions wonder if they have the capacity to meet future educational demands. Due to substantial increases in applicants, many colleges have had to turn more and more people away. In fact, between 1997 and 2007 enrollment in four-year, post-secondary education institutions rose from 14.5 million to 18.2 million, an increase of roughly 26 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

More importantly, do our local communities hosting these schools have the capacity to support this exponential growth? Traditional campuses require a considerable amount of infrastructure. The typical footprint encompasses several acres of land, numerous large classroom buildings, utilities and service structures, housing, athletic facilities and recreation centers, in addition to acres of parking lots or garages.

To illustrate the sustainability dilemmas confronting our brick-and-mortar institutions, we can look at the nation’s three largest ground campuses based on enrollment, according to their self-reported data as of April 2011: Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., with more than 58,000 students and a 700 acre-plus campus; University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., with approximately 56,000 students and 1,400 acres; and Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, also with 56,000-plus students and roughly 1,700 acres.

Despite their massive scale, even these campuses are bursting at the seams and, in many cases, adjusting their business model to accommodate projected growth by incorporating online programs. One in four college students, were taking at least one online course at the start of the 2008-2009 school year, compared to just 10 percent in 2002, according to US News & World Report,.  The energy savings of this learning format is significant. According to a UK study*, on average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90 percent less energy and produced  85 percent fewer CO2 emissions (per student per 10 CAT points) than the conventional campus-based university courses.

Since online learning provides efficient, flexible access to content and instruction at any time, from any place, the virtual platform offers a more sustainable alternative to ground campuses. The American Public University System (APUS), based in Charles Town, W. Va., consists of two 100 percent virtual universities, American Public University and American Military University (founded in 1991), serving students in all 50 states and more than 100 countries. Online institutions have a significantly lower environmental impact than ground campuses, according to the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. The online format at APUS provides a medium for more than 750 faculty and over 83,000 students to attend classes without having to commute to campus. The electronic medium also decreases daily paper waste by thousands through source reduction, a solid waste management strategy.

Since 2002, APUS has grown from eight employees housed in a single building, to more than 600 occupying ten, including administrative offices in Manassas, Va. Despite this infrastructural growth, the university has been able to minimize its footprint through a sustainable growth model. Six APUS properties are registered as National Historic Places, which the university rescued and restored for new use. Two more locations are repurposed properties, including an over 50-year-old grocery store and a former sprinkler factory. Despite nine years of continuous growth, the Academic Center is the only new construction, built on the site of a former brownfield. By selecting a blighted property centrally located in the city’s historic urban core, the new addition ensures development density and community connectivity, and effectively adds 45,000 square feet of commercial work space to the city, while adding zero square feet to the city’s landscape footprint.

Bringing new life to such established infrastructure preserves existing green space and provides economic relief to communities like Charles Town, W.Va., that have been shrinking over the last several decades. Rebuilding and revitalizing these communities is an important step to addressing issues surrounding land use trends and unsustainable suburban expansion around large urban cores.

The APUS model illustrates the transformative effect of Internet technology on education, and how the United States can simultaneously achieve community revitalization and meet its growing educational needs. In addition to the numerous resource saving benefits of the online medium, it illustrates how emerging online educational institutions can provide low impact job creation. By focusing on a community-oriented growth paradigm emphasizing historic revitalization, infrastructure repurposing and brownfield redevelopment, APUS has become an anchor for revitalization in Charles Town, W.Va.

Wesley Holmes is an Environmental Policy Analyst & Sustainability Consultant and editor of American Public University System’s Green Building blog. He received a Master’s of Environmental Policy and Management degree from American Public University.

About the Author

Wesley Holmes is an Environmental Policy Analyst & Sustainability Consultant and editor of American Public University System’s Green Building blog. He received a Master’s of Environmental Policy and Management degree from American Public University.