Is a sustainability degree worth it? Here's a crash course

A retired Navy officer rebuilding a community green. A nurse, frustrated with the internal waste she encountered in her job, now inspired to create change. A city water professional looking to leverage sustainability knowledge into improved systems.

All are examples of students at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, one of many programs offering an education — in this case, an MBA and an MPA — in sustainable management. And these students are not alone in recognizing the advantages of focused sustainability training in higher education.

According to Marsha Willard, executive director of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals and CEO of Axis Performance Advisors, the value of a sustainability degree is "increasing as each day passes."

"The field of sustainability is still fairly new," she said. "When job titles started showing up 20 years ago, most of us who were working in the area at the time came to the profession from a disparate set of backgrounds; there were people who were environmentalists, architects, organizational development specialists ... there were a bevy of skill sets. That collective perspective created a pretty rich foundation for the field, but since that time, it's no longer enough to have a degree in organizational development, environmental studies or engineering. It doesn't sound specific enough. And higher education has responded by offering more degrees that have sustainability in the title."

Research also reveals increasing interest in sustainability-focused higher education. Last year, Net Impact — a nonprofit membership organization for students and professionals working in the sustainability field — released the Business as Unusual Guide 2013 (PDF). Net Impact's research found that making an environmental and social impact through business has gone from "nice to have" to "must have" for prospective graduate business students. A full 91 percent of 3,300 graduate students reported that social and environmental issues are very important or essential to business's long-term success, and 85 percent said they wanted to tackle these issues while in graduate school.

Stats from the Business as Unusual Guide 2013.

For those looking to take on these important issues, sustainability degrees make a lot of sense. The best programs offer targeted training, experiential learning, networking opportunities and, of course, "proof" to prospective job prospects that a core base of knowledge in sustainability has been attained.

But even for those who know they're interested in getting a sustainability degree, questions still linger. Namely: What's the best way to go about getting such a degree? And is it worth it, really?

What to know about degree programs

The first key question to ask is this: Do you want to participate in a specific sustainability-focused program, or a regular business program with some sustainability coursework built into it?

A good many schools today offer sustainability training even if the name of the degree doesn't directly reflect that. "We believe there are many paths to preparing next generation sustainability leaders, including sustainability degrees. However, more and more MBA programs are integrating sustainability into their core curriculum," said Linda Gerard, VP of brand marketing and innovation for Net Impact.

Indeed, in 2013, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business determined that "social responsibility, including sustainability and ethical behavior and approaches to management" will be a standard in the curriculum content for all programs within AACSB accreditation, which encompasses a school network with more than 150,000 students.

Top sustainability programs, as judged by students, according to the 2013 Business as Unusual Guide.That said, there can be distinct advantages to seeking out programs that hone in on sustainability specifically, including putting it front and center in the name of the degree. As Willard points out, it doesn't make sense to take one or two courses in sustainability if the rest of your course load is made up of traditional classes in accounting or finance that are at odds with sustainable principles.

George Basile, a senior sustainability scientist and professor of practice at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, seconds this. "One advantage for the sustainability degree is that most organizations have a host of exceptional MBA holders, yet they still have a growing suite of challenges and increasing market needs that the MBA does not address directly," he said. For its part, ASU offers a masters in sustainability solutions and executive masters in sustainability leadership, as well as a Ph.D, B.A. and B.S. in sustainability.

There's also the question of where you are in your career; while those brand-new to sustainability might benefit from something like ASU's B.A. program, programs such as Presidio's often attract mid-career professionals looking for job shifts and growth.

One good place to start when deciding which program to look into is the comprehensive list of sustainability-focused masters programs from The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It includes some 450 programs that offer training in sustainability, providing an excellent portal to get started. The list is also helpful for those looking to drill deeper into specific fields of sustainable study, with programs that hone in on design, entrepreneurship, policy, sustainable agriculture and more.

The BAU report also provides a list of the top 20 programs for sustainability, as judged by students. No. 1 on the list is Presidio, followed by UC Santa Barbara, Bainbridge Graduate Institute at Pinchot University, Dominican University of California and the University of Michigan.

Real world experience vs. academic training

One common critique of sustainability degrees is that they focus too much on academia and not enough on the kind of hands-on experience essential for success in the sustainable business world. So it's often critical to seek out programs that mix in a healthy amount of on-the-ground learning with academic knowledge.

"Working in the field is a key part of becoming a sustainability leader. No doubt. After all, the laboratory for sustainability is the world and success is measured in the real world," Basile said. "But this is definitely not an either/or. This is all about 'and.'"

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Presidio Graduate SchoolBasile cites market research that revealed sustainability-related professionals feel there's a needs gap in the knowledge and skills they are gaining from only "school of hard knocks" learning. "The combination of organized degree efforts and field experience provides the integrated learning/leadership-growth platform needed to expand one's knowledge base in foundational areas key to sustainability, as well as having the hands-on opportunities to experiment for oneself in this rapidly evolving arena," he said.

Presidio, for example, offers the Experiential Learning program as part of its Sustainable Management MBA, offering students the chance to work on at least four real-world sustainability projects with large and small companies. Since 2007, students have provided more than 63,000 hours of sustainability consulting to over 270 organizations, including IDEO, Google, Puma and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. All MBAs also must develop and create a new product or service by conducting interviews, observing real-world successes, holding focus groups and otherwise connecting with those in the field.

There's a worry that education programs "produce generalists who can spot or identify sustainability issues but can't effectively solve them in real contexts," said Ryan Cabinte, associate dean of the MPA and dual degree programs at Presidio. "From the beginning, we wanted to produce managers and leaders who could get things done, not people who know about sustainability."

The value of a sustainability degree

So how much do these programs really have an impact on real-world job placement and career success? There aren't a lot of comprehensive numbers on this, but metrics do suggest that sustainability degrees can serve as a beneficial career-path stepping stone. Take the case of the sustainability-focused MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute at Pinchot University in Seattle. Over the course of 10 years, students have achieved a job placement rate of 82 percent within three months of graduation, on par with some of the most recognizable standard MBA programs in the country.

As sustainability becomes an increasingly prevalent part of the business world, it stands to reason that the value of sustainability degree programs will continue to grow. "We've never heard anyone say that having a sustainability-related degree hurt them," said Ray Berardinelli, marketing director for ISSP. "As more and more sustainability programs are created inside organizations, it can only help to have such credentials."