The 15 Best Online Masters In Sustainability Degree Programs

Beginning in 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began carefully studying the "green economy" in the United States. Its findings were notable for people with an interest in so-called "green jobs." First and foremost, the agency found that the U.S. had more than 3.1 million green jobs during the 2010 calendar year. Further study also revealed that the green economy was growing at a rate four times faster than the broader American economy, leading to strong job growth, high salaries, and nearly insatiable demand for professionals with an education that combined engineering, business, and sustainability.

Today, demand remains high, and the number of sustainability-focused graduate programs continues to grow. Options for online students range from traditional distance education schools to major, state-funded university systems. Ranking these schools is a key way of determining which programs are best for every eco-friendly career interest in the United States and abroad.

Methodology: How Sustainability Programs Were Ranked

Before choosing a program based on its ranking in this list, aspiring graduate students need to know exactly why each school was given its placement. The ranking methodology used focuses on a combination of factors, including prestige, networking potential, and academic rigor, which are all key components of a graduate education. A detailed overview of these factors can be found below.

Prestige: Graduate degrees require an even greater educational expense on behalf of every student, but the prestige of the institution can help to mitigate that cost by providing greater visibility in job searches and giving students access to a larger alumni network. Prestige is typically correlated with academic rigor, which indicates a more highly qualified applicant in the eyes of most recruiters.Networking potential: Graduate school is equal parts classwork and network, and that reality is reflected in the rankings. Schools with better networking events, career offices, and alumni associations outrank schools where these programs might be lackluster or nonexistent outside the primary classroom environment.

Academic rigor: The number of credits, the admission requirements of a program, and its core curriculum are used to determine how academically rigorous it is for the typical student. Beyond professional networking, students should be able to learn something about sustainability and hit the ground running in a mid-level job after graduation. Rigor is essential to making that a reality.

15. Green Mountain College


Green Mountain College offers several options for students interested in sustainability, including an MBA and three M.S. programs in the field. Each program focuses on a different set of skills, whether it's sustainable management, sustainable food systems, or environmental studies. Within each program, students must combine their online coursework with volunteer work at a local environmental agency or organization. This provides hands-on experience in sustainable decision-making that will prove invaluable to students as they graduate from the program and pursue career opportunities.

Green Mountain College, located in Vermont, is the only school on this list that considers itself an "environmental college." To that end, the school is centrally focused not only on sustainability in education but also in practice. The school's buildings and servers run on green energy; students are encouraged to advocate for sustainability changes to academic buildings or course content; faculty pledge to act in eco-conscious ways. As a result, no school ranks as highly as Green Mountain College for sustainability.

14. Wilmington University


Wilmington University offers one of the most affordable MBA programs in the country. The school also offers one of the most robust concentrations in sustainable management. Wilmington University students take coursework in the management of the sustainable enterprise, accounting for sustainable change, social leadership, and social entrepreneurship. Graduates are given the skills they need to make more ethical, more sustainable business decisions in both the United States and in international settings.

Founded specifically to focus on career skills for nontraditional students, Wilmington University today is one of the nation's fastest-growing universities. Its online presence has been around for more than a decade, giving the school insight into how best to offer distance education programs to students at all levels. Known widely for its affordability and distance education efforts, Wilmington University is more affordable than the nearby University of Delaware, offers excellent networking opportunities to its online students, and ranks as one of the top 100 schools for online graduate programs.

13. Marylhurst University


Marylhurst offers an online MBA that specifically appeals to adult learners who want the ultimate in flexibility. The MBA program is broken down into 12 courses, each of which can be completed in five weeks. This allows most students to complete the degree in as little as 12 months. The sustainability concentration at the school focuses on development and energy. Students are taught how to make sustainable development and construction choices, how renewable energy can make a difference, and how social leadership can influence public decision-making about sustainable products.

Marylhurst is most widely recognized for its online MBA programs. Though the school is a small, mostly liberal arts institution, the online MBA program provides students with the opportunity to learn via case studies, participate in group business simulations, and gain hands-on experience through graduate internships. Though highly regional regarding its network, the school is a top choice for Oregon residents who will have access to a statewide network of Marylhurst alumni at their fingertips.

12. Western Kentucky University


Western Kentucky University offers an AACSB-accredited, 33-credit MBA program that requires students to take at least nine credits in a chosen concentration. The sustainable management concentration features some courses that are unique to Kentucky, including a seminar on the transition from nonrenewable energy to sustainable sources of energy in today's business environment. Students learn how to make sustainable management decisions, how to confront environmental challenges in the developing world, and how to influence public policy to make it more environmentally conscious.

As a public university in the state of Kentucky, WKU offers a highly affordable tuition rate that has earned it a top-10 ranking for "best value" schools in the southern part of the country. WKU is also ranked among the best regional, state-funded schools in the region, and draws students from across the country via its ranking as a top-100 school for online graduate education. The school offers virtual career fairs, networking events, resume consulting, and recruiter contacts, making it a particularly good choice for starting a new career.

11. Franklin Pierce University


Franklin Pierce University's mission has always been to provide career-relevant training to adult learners who might be taking a less traditional path toward their undergraduate or graduate degree. To that end, the school's MBA is offered in 7-week blocks that are conducive to flexibility throughout the calendar year. Six blocks are offered each year, making it easy to take up to 36 credits in a single year. That would allow students to complete this MBA, and its sustainability concentration, in 15 months. The sustainable business focus at Franklin Pierce is mostly focused on social responsibility and transitioning the non-sustainable enterprise into one that is environmentally conscious.

Franklin Pierce is ranked by Forbes as one of America's top universities, ranks as a top regional institution in the latest edition of U.S. News and World Report, and is considered one of America's "best colleges" by the Princeton Review. The school notably does not require the GMAT for most applicants, making it an approachable choice for adults who have taken a considerable break in their studies.

10. University of Saint Francis


At the University of Saint Francis, students can choose from an MBA with an environmental concentration, a Master of Science program in environmental health, or a 36-credit program that combines both degrees into a joint-degree opportunity. This makes the university one of the best choices for students who want to round out their business skills while gaining a better understanding of the environment, the impact of business on ecosystems, and how management decisions can improve ecological systems. A highly competitive program, aspiring USF students just submit GMAT scores and should have a minimum of 5 years of professional experience.

Students who opt to attend the University of Saint Francis will be committing to a school that consistently ranks as one of the best regional universities in the Midwest. The university is also considered an excellent choice for military service members and veterans due to its high degree of flexibility. The USF brand is considered rather prestigious in the Midwest and is a definite asset as students begin building their professional network and personal brand.

9. University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth


UMass Dartmouth offers several unique opportunities to MBA students with an interest in sustainability. First, the school has a generous credit transfer policy. This is a rarity among AACSB-accredited institutions. Also, students at UMass Dartmouth can opt to go beyond the fully online MBA and enroll in the combined JD/MBA program in-person at the university's law school. The sustainability concentration at the University requires a minimum of 9 credits that focus on sustainable leadership, public policy, and social entrepreneurship. A business core is also required, focusing on managerial accounting, marketing, and other areas.

Known as the second-largest campus in the University of Massachusetts System, UMass Dartmouth is consistently ranked as one of the best public universities in New England by the Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report. The school has also earned a reputation as a "best value" school by offering a far more affordable tuition rate than is charged by the UMass Amherst campus. With a strong alumni network all along the east coast of the United States, students will be able to grow their career dynamically after graduation.

8. The University of Colorado at Denver


The University of Colorado's Denver campus offers an innovative concentration in sustainability that goes beyond first-world management issues. Indeed, the school is one of the few to offer coursework that focuses on creating a sustainable business environment in the developing world. Students who choose the sustainability concentration within the UC Denver MBA also focus on social leadership and social justice, managing organizations for sustainability, and accounting for sustainability. The program can be completed in as little as 11 months.

The chief rival to the University of Denver, the University of Colorado's Denver campus is the leading public institution for people in the greater Denver metropolitan area. It's also a great choice for online students. In both cases, the school offers top rankings as a national university, a research institution, and a leader in online education. UC Denver's online graduate programs are ranked among the top 25 nationally. Graduates are inducted into an alumni association that encompasses the broader University of Colorado System, giving them access to tens of thousands of graduates who provide a sound professional network.

7. Northeastern University


At Northeastern University, students who wish to study sustainability must enroll in the school's top-ranked MBA program. The program, which requires submission of top-notch GMAT scores and several years of professional experience, requires 15 core business courses and at least three courses in the student's chosen concentration. The sustainability concentration at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business focuses on a combination of sustainable business practices, awareness of public policy that influences sustainable management, and how to create positive, more sustainable change within large organizations.

Northeastern University is one of the best private research universities in New England, with top rankings among business schools, research institutions, and national universities. Though the school is located in Boston, students who graduate from the online program will be able to find networking connections nationwide due to the school's long history and a large number of successful graduates. Though the school is highly selective, especially within the MBA program, accepted students will find a collaborative, rather than highly competitive, environment throughout each MBA course.

6. The University of Wisconsin at Madison


For students with either career experience or an interest in engineering, no program can compete with what the University of Wisconsin at Madison has to offer. The school is one of the few to offer an online degree in sustainability systems engineering to students with a highly technical background or a demonstrated interest in systems engineering. The program blends cutting-edge sustainability education with the traditional components of a systems engineering degree. A particular focus of the program is on creating positive change and leading the organizational transition to more sustainable systems. Students have the ability to qualify for on-campus assistantships if they're local to the Madison campus.

In terms of prestige, few Midwestern universities are as widely known and respected as the University of Wisconsin at Madison. For decades, the school has ranked near the top of the list for public universities, national universities, and "best value" schools. It offers one of the lowest graduate tuition rates among universities in the Upper Midwest, provides access to a free alumni association with more than 50,000 members globally, and is one of the school recruiters specifically target when filling mid-level positions.

5. Virginia Polytechnic Institute


Known more popularly as Virginia Tech, students who choose this particular program will be from the school's Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. Virginia Tech is one of the few national universities to feature a center for green leadership. The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability coordinates not only the M.S. degree in sustainability, but also several research efforts into green energy, green jobs, and the impact of public policy on the broader sustainability industry. The school offers students three concentrations: landscape systems and strategies, international environmental law and policy, and global issues in natural resources. Research opportunities are also offered to online students local to the campus.

Virginia Tech ranks in the top 70 national universities in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. The school's graduate degree programs are highly competitive, with more than 50 percent of applicants receiving a rejection from the school's admissions committees. Though highly competitive, the school is also known for being very tight-knit and offering strong networking potential. Virginia Tech ranks highly among entrepreneurial universities, especially when it comes to the number of alumni who start business ventures together.

4. University of Denver


At the University of Denver, students pursue an M.S. in energy and sustainability. This dual focus is unique among online graduate programs in sustainability. Because of the focus on energy, students take coursework that weighs the pros and cons of both sustainable and non-sustainable energy sources, like nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, and even natural gas. The sustainability focus of the program teaches students how to make practical, environmentally conscious decisions in energy, energy policy, leadership, and corporate management. The program features a sustainability core, an energy core, and a series of electives that allow students to choose courses based on their academic or professional interests.

The University of Denver is ranked at number 86 among national universities by U.S. News and World Report. The urban institution is Denver's leading private research university and typically ranks as one of the best universities in the western region of the country. Students at the school benefit from the university's prestigious reputation as well as its growing alumni networking throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.

3. Arizona State University


Arizona State University's sustainability programs are offered in three distinct formats, each leading to a different degree. Graduate students can choose from the following programs:

  • ​Master of Sustainability Solutions
  • Master of Sustainability Leadership
  • Executive Maste of Sustainability Leadership 

The Master of Sustainability Leadership program is the only fully online option, while the other two degree programs are offered in a hybrid format that blends online and offline instruction for local students. The sustainability leadership path focuses less on hands-on experience and more on leading organizations that focus on creating a sustainable footprint in their market areas Graduates of the program are primed to be leaders of corporate environmental efforts, advocates for better public policies on the environment, and managers who know how to make eco-friendly decisions.

Arizona State University ranks third in the nation for its online, non-MBA graduate programs. The school is also ranked in the top 130 national universities, stands out in the Princeton Review as one of the country's best public institutions, and is home to a massive alumni organization. Students also have the opportunity to take part in virtual career fairs, online networking events, and elective career seminars, each of which will boost their hiring potential upon graduation.

2. Pennsylvania State University - World Campus


Penn State is one of the few schools in the United States that is popularizing the Master of Professional Studies degree. Though this degree has been around for decades, schools like Penn State are redefining its role in higher education. The MPS at Penn State focuses on a dual concentration of renewable energy and sustainability systems. This gives students insight into the green economy in both a practical and technological sense and prepares them for future applications of renewable energies in business systems. Students also take several courses that focus in-depth on environmental policy, the process of adopting new regulations and how to implement regulations in everyday business practice.

Penn State is home to the nation's largest, dues-paying alumni association. More than 100,000 Penn State alumni take part in the Association, which coordinates meetups, networking events, and fundraising opportunities with alumni all around the world. The school is also ranked at number 47 among "national universities" by U.S. News and World Report; the school is typically ranked among the top 5 state universities in the nation by several publications each year.

1. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


At UNC-Chapel Hill, the flagship the University of North Carolina campus, students pursue environmental sustainability as a concentration within the school's MBA program. The "sustainable enterprise" concentration, which requires 7.5 credit hours, focuses on how to run an eco-friendly business in all areas, from international manufacturing to domestic offices and construction. The program offers students the ability to attend global immersion experiences at least four times per year and requires one on-campus residency at the start of the program.

The online MBA program at UNC-Chapel Hill is ranked as the single best online MBA in the United States, though it shares this title in a tie with Philadelphia's Temple University. The school's academic prestige is an asset for students in all of its programs. The University of North Carolina Alumni Association is one of the nation's largest and most active, with nearly 100 local chapters in cities across the United States and around the world. These factors help the school's MBA job placement rate, which is currently 96 percent within six months of graduation. Uniquely, students local to Chapel Hill can extend their MBA for one year and add a law degree to their resume as well.