Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Best Schools for Environmental Science in the US

6 minute read

Environmental science has emerged as a dynamic and critical field of study, drawing increasing interest from students seeking to impact the planet positively. Choosing the right school for environmental science is pivotal in shaping your journey toward a career dedicated to understanding and addressing pressing environmental issues.

Why Study Environmental Science?

If you have a passion for problem-solving and a deep interest in the natural world or solving an environmental issue, environmental science offers a fulfilling academic and professional journey. The challenges you'll encounter span a broad spectrum, requiring the application of scientific knowledge and innovative approaches to find solutions. For those inclined towards research, delving into environmental science promises exciting discoveries and contributions to the field. Moreover, environmental science is not just about understanding problems but actively contributing to solutions. The field offers prospective students opportunities for hands-on experiences, fieldwork, and collaborations beyond the classroom, making it an engaging and dynamic area of study.

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Top Schools For Environmental Science in the U.S.

This is just a glimpse into some of the best environmental science schools. Remember to explore the faculty's research interests, the range of courses offered, and the hands-on opportunities each program provides to find the school that aligns best with your passion for environmental science.

#1 Stanford University

Location: Stanford, California
Tuition: $17,472 in-state, $50,703 out-of-state

 Why it’s a top school: Apart from being consistently part of the prestigious QS world university rankings, Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences offers an interdisciplinary approach to environmental studies. Renowned faculty members conduct cutting-edge research, and students benefit from Silicon Valley's proximity, fostering innovation and collaboration with tech-driven solutions to environmental challenges. Additionally, if you're interested in pursuing graduate school within the same field, Stanford University also offers excellent graduate programs.

Notable faculty: 

  • Gretchen Daily: Ecologist and conservation biologist focusing on sustainable solutions for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Polygence research program mentors:

Amanda: I am an archaeologist. My research focuses on human-environment relationships in the ancient Meditrranean. My work provides the environmental context of history and culture and gives the environment an active role in understanding the past. I work with interdisciplinary datasets, namely associated archaeological soils and architectural remains, primarily from Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. I use techniques from geology to evaluate the environment in the archaeological record and interpret human-environment relationships, disaster, resilience, and societal development over the short and long term. I also enjoy sports like surfing, running, and playing soccer.

#2 Harvard University

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tuition: $54,002

Why it’s a top school: Harvard's Center for the Environment facilitates interdisciplinary research and collaboration across various departments. The university's commitment to sustainability and the diverse expertise of faculty members make it a hub for aspiring environmental scientists. Similar to Stanford, Harvard University is widely known for consistently securing a high spot in the QS world university rankings. 

Notable faculty: 

  • Daniel Schrag: Geochemist specializing in climate science and policy.

#3 University of Washington

Location: Seattle, Washington
Tuition: $12,763 in-state, $41,853 out-of-state

Why it’s a top school: The University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences offers a comprehensive program covering ecological restoration, environmental policy, and sustainable resource management. Faculty members at UW have made significant contributions to environmental research, and the proximity to leading environmental organizations in Seattle provides students with networking and internship opportunities. These achievements also give the school a high spot in college rankings.

Notable faculty:

  • Jerry Franklin: Forestry expert recognized for contributions to ecosystem-based management

  • Clare Ryan: Researcher focusing on social aspects of environmental issues and environmental justice

#4 University of California - Berkeley

Location: Berkeley, California
Tuition: $14,312 for in-state, $44,066 for out-of-state

Why it’s a top public school: UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources offers a comprehensive environmental science program. The proximity to the Bay Area and collaboration with leading research institutions provide students with unparalleled research opportunities and community engagement opportunities.

Notable faculty: 

  • Inez Fung: Atmospheric scientist focusing on climate modeling and global carbon cycles.

Top Public Universities for Environmental Science

#1 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor

Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tuition: $16,020 in-state, $51,204 out-of-state

Why it’s a top school: The School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M offers diverse environmental programs. With a strong emphasis on collaboration, students with an environmental science major can engage in interdisciplinary projects and have access to extensive research facilities and natural areas for field studies.

Notable faculty: 

  • Rosina Bierbaum: Environmental scientist specializing in climate change impacts and adaptation.

Polygence research program mentors:

Joseph G: Joe is currently a Master of Science student in conservation biology with the Boone and Crockett Program in Wildlife Conservation at Michigan State University. His thesis seeks to understand the environmental and social factors driving economic benefits captured by Namibia’s communal conservancies, the roles of hunting and tourism on their financial sustainability, and the influence of governance performance within the country’s community-based natural resource management program.    Previously, Joe worked for 7 years for a conservation organization and developed a passion for understanding conservation's local benefits, community perspectives, and livelihood impacts.  

#2 University of Colorado Boulder

Location: Boulder, Colorado
Tuition: $12,494 in-state, $39,756 out-of-state

Why it’s a top school: CU Boulder's Environmental Studies Program offers a holistic approach to environmental issues. The university's commitment to sustainability is evident in its research initiatives and on-campus practices, providing students with real-world applications of environmental science.

Notable faculty: 

  • Max Boykoff: Scholar focusing on climate change communication and policy.

#3 University of California - Santa Barbara

Location: Santa Barbara, California
Tuition: $14,451 in-state, $44,205 out-of-state

Why it’s a top school:  UC Santa Barbara boasts a renowned Environmental Studies Program that integrates natural sciences, social science, and humanities. The campus's proximity to diverse ecosystems, including coastal environments and mountainous regions, provides students with unique fieldwork opportunities. The program emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches, preparing students to address complex environmental challenges from multiple perspectives. Thus, making it a good foundation for those who want to pursue environmental management.

Notable faculty: 

  • David Lopez-Carr: Geographer specializing in human-environment interactions and global environmental change

Polygence research program mentors:

Luke F: I am a 5th year PhD candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying astrobiology and life in extreme environments focusing specifically on the limits of life in hypersaline environments. Additionally, I use tools in molecular and synthetic biology to better understand the mechanisms of how microbial life in the deep sea persists. 

Laura G: I have experience teaching various science topics to students from all walks of life: oceanography, marine biology, science research, environmental systems, and many others! I currently work in the biotech industry as a research assistant for a company paving the way for cell-cultured seafood! My favorite animals are manatees! I almost specialized in marine mammals before I decided on coral reef ecology. I love scuba diving, rock climbing, swimming, and reading. I love visiting new aquariums and learning about new ecosystems. I also have a precious corgi named Checkers who is my best friend!

#4 Colorado State University

Location: Fort Collins, Colorado
Tuition: $12,776 in-state, $30,146 out-of-state

Why it’s a top school: Colorado State University's Warner College of Natural Resources offers a robust program in environmental science with a strong emphasis on research and practical application. The proximity to diverse ecosystems, including the Rocky Mountains, provides students with a rich environment for fieldwork and hands-on experiences.

Notable faculty:

  • Diana Wall: Soil ecologist recognized for her work in Antarctica and contributions to biodiversity conservation

  • Mark Paschke: Hydrologist specializing in watershed science and management

#5 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Tuition: $8,980 in-state, $36,159 out-of-state

Why it’s a top public school: UNC-Chapel Hill's Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program provides students with a strong foundation in environmental science. The university's commitment to sustainability is evident in its campus practices, and students benefit from partnerships with local environmental organizations.

Notable faculty: 

  • Greg Gangi: Environmental scientist focusing on water quality and sustainable water management.

#6 University of Wisconsin-Madison

Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Tuition: $11,275 in-state, $38,630 out-of-state

Why it’s a top public school: The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison offers a multidisciplinary approach to environmental issues. Students engage in research across various disciplines and benefit from the university's strong ties to governmental and non-profit environmental agencies.

#7 University of Maryland - College Park

Location: College Park, Maryland
Tuition: $10,779 in-state, $36,891 out-of-state

Why it’s a top public school: UMD's Department of Environmental Science and Technology offers a comprehensive program focusing on applied environmental science. Students benefit from the university's proximity to government agencies and environmental research institutions in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

#8 University of Florida

Location: Gainesville, Florida
Tuition: $6,380 for in-state, $28,658 for out-of-state

Why it’s a top school: UF's School of Forest Resources and Conservation offers programs that blend scientific expertise with practical solutions. The university's proximity to diverse ecosystems, including wetlands and forests, provides students with hands-on experiences and research opportunities.

Notable faculty: 

  • Michael Andreu: Forest ecosystem scientist with research focusing on sustainable forest management.

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Lesser-Known Schools and Smaller Colleges for Environmental Science

These lesser-known schools may be less widely recognized, but they offer distinctive programs and environments that could align perfectly with your passion for environmental science. Always explore each school's specific offerings and opportunities to find the best fit for your academic and career goals.

#1 Unity College

Location: Unity, Maine
Tuition: $29,960

Unity College specializes in environmental science and sustainability. With a focus on experiential learning and a small campus community, students engage in hands-on projects and benefit from close interactions with faculty.

#2 California State Polytechnic University – Humboldt 

Location: Arcata, California
Tuition: $7,806 for in-state, $19,686 for out-of-state

Humboldt State's Department of Environmental Science & Management offers a unique blend of natural and social sciences. The university's emphasis on sustainability and its location in the redwood forests provide students with a distinctive learning environment.

#3 Prescott College

Location: Prescott, Arizona
Tuition: $31,425

Prescott College's Environmental Studies Program emphasizes a hands-on, experiential learning approach. The flexible and personalized curriculum allows students to tailor their studies to specific interests, and the university's commitment to sustainability is embedded in its practices.

#4 Fort Lewis College

Location: Durango, Colorado
Tuition: $10,741 for in-state, $21,958 for out-of-state

Fort Lewis College's Environmental Studies program offers a diverse curriculum with a strong emphasis on fieldwork. The college's location in the Rocky Mountains provides students with unique hands-on experiences in various ecosystems.

What Will I Learn in an Environmental Science Program? 

Now that you have an idea about what the best environmental science schools are, you can dig deeper into the learning opportunities this program offers. An environmental science program typically covers a broad range of topics to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of environmental issues, ecosystems, and sustainable practices. Here's a bullet list of what prospective students might learn in an environmental science program:

  • Introduction to Environmental Science

  • Ecology and Ecosystems, including interactions between organisms and their environments.

  • Biodiversity and conservation principles

  • Earth Science and Geology

  • Climate Science

  • Environmental Chemistry

  • Environmental Biology

  • Environmental Management

  • Environmental Engineering

  • Environmental Policy and Regulation

  • Sustainability and Environmental Ethics

  • Fieldwork and Research Methods

  • Environmental Economics

  • Environmental Technology

  • Human-Environment Interactions

  • Environmental Risk Assessment

  • Marine Science

This is a partial list, though you can generally expect to learn the following in an environmental science program.

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Is Pursuing a Career in Environmental Science Without Attending a 4-Year College Program possible?

Absolutely! While many environmental science careers traditionally require a four-year college degree, there are alternative paths and options for pursuing a career in environmental science without following the conventional route and going to the best colleges. Here are some alternative pathways you might consider:

1. Associate Degree Programs

Some community colleges offer associate degree programs in environmental science or related fields. While not as comprehensive as a four-year program, these can provide a solid foundation and allow you to enter the workforce more quickly.

2. Certification Programs

Explore certification programs or short-term courses that focus on specific skills within environmental science. These can enhance your knowledge in a targeted area and make you more competitive in the job market.

3. Online Courses and MOOCs

Functioning like an online college or school, platforms like Coursera, edX, or Khan Academy offer online courses in environmental science topics. While not a substitute for a full degree, these courses can provide valuable knowledge and skills that employers may recognize.

4. Internships and Entry-Level Positions

Consider starting with internships or entry-level positions in environmental organizations, government agencies, or private companies. Practical experience can sometimes outweigh formal education, and you can learn on the job while building a professional network to request information and guidance.

Ultimately, the key is continuously learning, gaining practical experience, and showcasing your field dedication. Networking and staying informed about industry trends can also play a crucial role in securing opportunities in environmental science.