Earning an Online Sustainability
Bachelor's Degree

Many accredited colleges and universities offer a major in sustainability, an emerging field that promises high earnings. Whether you are a recent graduate or a working professional returning to school, you can find a sustainability program that fits your needs. The convenience and affordability of online programs may resonate with working professionals on a budget. Read on for an overview of what to expect from an online sustainability degree in terms of coursework, skills learned, and career expectations. This guide also includes a list of professional organizations for sustainability graduates.

Overview of Sustainability Degrees

Sustainability encompasses our efforts as human beings to use natural resources effectively and minimize our negative impact on the planet. A bachelor's in sustainability equips you with the skills needed to promote sustainable practices as a sustainability manager, specialist, or scientist. The degree is perfect for professionals in corporate environments looking to make a difference, as many sustainability specialists work to help companies develop green policies.

This emerging field also draws recent graduates looking to work in fields such as conservation, land stewardship, and urban planning. If you pursue a sustainability degree online, you may get to halt the destruction of an ecosystem, plan the implementation of green energy sources in a major city, or steer a corporation toward sustainable resource management. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2026, environmental scientists and specialists can anticipate an 11% rise in employment.

One affordable route toward a career in sustainability is through an online sustainability degree. Though many sustainability online degrees feature some in-person elements including fieldwork and in-person meetings, numerous accredited schools offer this degree in a fully online format.

Application Process

Admission requirements vary by school, but most require you to submit your high school transcripts as well as letters of recommendation from previous instructors. You will also need to pay an application fee, usually around $50. Some schools ask you to write a brief essay, often on your background or reason for interest in the program. Most bachelor's programs require a minimum 2.0 GPA. If you are a transfer student, you must submit transcripts from all previous higher education institutions.

What Will I Learn?

The curriculum of an online sustainability degree varies by program. For instance, a business management bachelor's with a degree track for sustainability may emphasize business and economics concepts, designed for those who want to work in a corporate environment rather than one relating to conservation work.

Most online sustainability degrees take 120 credits to complete, with 30-35 devoted to the major, 50-60 towards general education, and 20-27 credits for electives. Students may find themselves tackling environmental science and ecology in as much depth as concepts from business and economics. Programs give learners a well-rounded overview of natural sciences, business, engineering, and economics. This list includes courses common to most programs.

Natural Resources and Society

In this course, students investigate the complex interrelationships between humans and natural resources. Topics include methods for measurement, research, and interpretation of human influence and social values' impact on natural resource issues. The course gives students a firm grasp of the social and cultural aspects behind implementing sustainable policies in professional contexts.

Sustainable Communities

In this course, instructors touch on topics such as sustainable community development and historical examples of sustainable community-building. Coursework is tailored to students interested in pursuing a sustainability-related career in design engineering or urban planning.

Environmental Ecology

Students investigate the biological, physical, and chemical facets of ecosystems to understand the consequences of human impact. Topics may include ecosystem restoration, forest decline and acid rain, and population and conservation ecology. The course prepares students for careers as environmental scientists and is tailored to those interested in conservation work.

Natural Resource Economics and Policy

Students learn to use economic theories to understand, mitigate, and resolve natural resource management issues. The skills students develop in this course prepare them for specialist careers related to managing forests, fisheries, land, and water resources. The program may require prerequisite coursework in economics.

Energy for Sustainable Management

Students investigate how sustainable management principles apply to energy-related issues facing humanity. Topics include the environmental and societal impact of fossil-fuel reliance and possible ways of transitioning to clean energy sources. The course prepares students for specialized engineering careers related to sustainable energy management by covering basic engineering principles and viable emerging energy technology.

Sustainability Capstone

Many on-campus and online sustainability degrees culminate in a capstone assignment. Students in business- or design engineering-related programs often help an organization solve sustainability issues with the goal of reaching a triple bottom-line resolution. In more environmental science-related programs, students research an environmental or climate-related issue with a nonprofit.

What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor's Degree in Sustainability?

A top online sustainability degree provides you with a strong foundation that equips you for work in corporate and nonprofit environments, applying sustainability principles to business concerns or working to conserve endangered ecosystems. You could find yourself in a profession related to environmental science preserving endangered wetlands or engineering new green energy technology. Your sustainability degree can lead to a satisfying, well-compensated career.

Core Skills

Graduates take coursework that acquaints them with basic engineering principles essential to designing buildings and infrastructure in line with sustainable standards. These principles help them understand emerging energy technology and sustainable resource extraction.

Sustainability majors strengthen their skills in management through the lens of sustainability. Coursework emphasizes resource management strategies and policymaking that achieves triple bottom-line resolution: achieving balance between social, environmental, and financial concerns. Coursework on sustainable management develops learners' skills in verbal and written communication as they learn to navigate the interrelationships between sustainable management and program planning. Learners strengthen their analytical skills when they study the economic, social and cultural influencers that affect sustainable policy-making.

In preparation for careers in ecological conservation and monitoring, students learn to analyze data from various ecosystems. They investigate the steps needed to mitigate or reverse the effects of human influence on ecosystems. An online sustainability degree strengthens research skills needed in corporate and non-profit settings.

Potential Careers and Salaries

Online sustainability graduates find employment in many professions. Thanks to the rising interest in reducing pollution and society's carbon footprint, sustainability graduates are in high demand. Their specialized skills and knowledge make them an asset to corporations and nonprofits. Graduates with a bachelor's in management and a concentration in sustainability find ample opportunities for employment in corporate settings as business development managers or sustainability managers, helping their employers use resources effectively and implement triple bottom-line solutions. An environmental engineering and sustainability major might work as a design engineer in an industrial setting or in urban planning. Environmental scientists can help corporations mitigate their influence on natural ecosystems or work in pure research positions for nonprofits.

Career Profiles

Environmental Scientist

Annual Mean Salary: $50,320

Environmental scientists work for nonprofits and corporate entities such as consulting firms to research environmental issues. They use the data they collect to develop, implement, and enforce regulations meant to conserve and protect ecosystems from pollution and other forms of human impact.

Sustainability Specialist

Annual Mean Salary: $54,471

Sustainability specialists plan, implement, and monitor sustainable policies for resource usage in corporate entities and nonprofits. They make company practice more sustainable and help find funding for further campaigns.

Business Development Manager

Annual Mean Salary: $70,985

These managers develop business solutions and manage expectations for the organizations that employ them. This includes achieving revenue goals and maintaining client relationships. They may work to develop triple bottom-line solutions for an organization, balancing revenue goals with sustainable practices.

Sustainability Manager

Annual Mean Salary: $71,079

Sustainability managers work in tandem with other managers to mitigate the environmental impacts of the organizations that employ them. They may evaluate departments' fuel usage, waste management, and greenhouse gas emission.

Design Engineer

Annual Mean Salary: $66,205

Design engineers lay out the blueprints for machines, systems, and equipment, often working closely with mechanical engineers. Design engineers working in sustainability may come up with designs to fit mechanical engineer specs for more responsible or efficient energy extraction equipment.

Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Sustainability?

For most professionals, a bachelor's in sustainability is a terminal degree. A bachelor's qualifies you for many entry-level careers. Professionals with a bachelor's can advance through experience, networking, and professional development without returning to school. However, those interested in pursuing leadership positions and more specialized work should consider pursuing a graduate degree in sustainability.

Professionals in sustainable management-related positions may find themselves returning to school to earn an MBA, while those working in environmental science or specialist positions may want to eventually earn their Ph.D. and rise to the forefront of their field as conservationists, researchers, or environmental policymakers. Advanced education translates to higher pay, professional acknowledgement, and more responsibility.

Accreditation for Sustainability Bachelor's Programs

When researching an online sustainability degree, make sure your prospective program or school is accredited. Pay special attention to whether a school holds regional or national accreditation. Four-year colleges and universities commonly hold regional accreditation, while two-year vocational and trade schools are usually nationally accredited. Credits from a nationally accredited school may not transfer to a regionally accredited four-year school.

Students should also research relevant programmatic accreditation for the degree, which varies by school. For example, if a university's school of engineering offers an online sustainability degree with an environmental engineering focus, it may hold programmatic accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Similarly, a sustainability track within an online bachelor's in environmental health science may hold accreditation from the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council.

Sustainability Professional Organizations

Students, recent graduates, and industry veterans can benefit from joining a professional organization. Membership in a professional organization allows you to access resources such as job placement services, certification programs, and on-demand training. Professional organizations also offer guidance through publications, webinars, online courses, and conferences. Lastly, membership in a professional organization gives you the opportunity to network and develop a sense of fellowship with those in your field.

International Society of Sustainability Professionals
Founded in 2008, the ISSP supports sustainability professionals through resources including webinars, live online training, and a career center. Local ISSP chapters often hold events open to non-members. The organization's professional certification program offers two levels of credentials: one for newcomers, another for veterans with at least five years in the sustainability field.

American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists
The AAES advocates for sustainability professionals by providing board certification and professional development opportunities that include webinars, an ongoing lecture series, and several publications. Members can access presentations from AAES meetings, workshops, and seminars online. The AAES recognizes individuals for their contributions to sustainability through competitions open to members.

Sustainability Management Association
Established in 2012 and with over 2,500 members in 33 states and 18 countries, the SMA provides certification for managers with a background in triple bottom line sustainability. Members can obtain SMA professional certification at the associate and professional levels. The organization offers jobseekers free registration to its annual online career fair.