April 3rd, 2023

Value-action gaps between sustainability behaviors, knowledge, attitudes and engagement in campus and curricular activities within a cohort of Gen Z university students

By Ashlyn Teather and Julie Etterson

Link to the JSE Winter 2023 General Issue Table of Contents

Teather Etterson JSE General March 2023 PDF


Abstract: Sustainability is a core value of Gen Z and is increasingly a focus of campus strategic plans. Undergraduate survey data can inform campus programming by increasing our understanding of student sustainability behaviors, knowledge, attitudes, and how these relate to student participation in curricular and cocurricular activities. Repeated surveys can track change over time in general and among underserved demographic segments of the student population. Here we evaluate the first in a series of biennial sustainability surveys that will guide planning at a mid-sized midwestern university in the USA. Our survey, modeled after existing surveys, was distributed to undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota Duluth (348 respondents) and collected demographic information including: college affiliation, year in school, gender, race/ethnicity, and campus residence. Our study showed that student knowledge scores were comparable to similar surveys at other institutions (66%) and the average attitude score was very high (88%). However, scores related to sustainability action were strikingly lower, indicating a gap between students’ understanding and acceptance of sustainability concepts and their willingness to engage, which we refer to as value-action gaps. When significant differences were detected between demographic groups, students who self-identified as female were more likely to have a higher sustainability score than students who identified as male and students who lived off campus were more likely to have a higher score than students who lived on campus. Other demographic results were mixed or not significant. We also noted a trend for students to score lower on questions related to business or economic sustainability and, similarly, for business students to score lower on sustainability questions overall than students in other colleges. Based on these baseline results, we provide recommendations to improve sustainability education and address the value-action gaps identified in this survey.

Keywords: Sustainability, University, Behaviors, Knowledge, Attitude, Gen Z


Global issues such as climate change, social justice, biodiversity losses, food quality and security — in other words, sustainability issues (United Nations, 2015) — are at the forefront of students’ minds as they contemplate the world they will inherit. The current generation of college students, Gen Z, is characterized by confidence that they will change the world in these realms and have a track record of success that has been driven by the power of social media and a non-negotiable attitude toward racial, gender, and LGBTQ equity (Swartz et al., 2017). Gen Z’s concern toward environmental issues, such as climate change, are considered a given. Moreover, Gen Z students prioritize careers where they can have social impacts. Based on these emerging generational attributes, it is important for institutions of higher education to provide opportunities for students to learn about emerging sustainability issues and engage in developing solutions (Barth et al., 2014; Eberhardt, 2017; Fromm & Read, 2018).

Traditional higher educational approaches may not be adequate to help students grapple with the “wicked problems” of contemporary society given their complexity and the necessity to be able to think critically at the interface of environmental, economic, and social systems (Head, 2008; McCune et al., 2021). Students rarely have an opportunity to cross disciplinary boundaries once they track into the curriculum for their major (Dawe et al., 2005; Desha et al., 2009; Tilbury et al., 2005). Traditional approaches can limit students to classroom-based learning and lack engagement, while experiential approaches can increase interaction between students and their community, enhance students’ critical reflection, and build their sense of agency (Domask, 2007; Favaloro et al., 2019). Thus, it is incumbent upon university administrators and faculty to intentionally craft pedagogical approaches, in both curricular and cocurricular activities, that engage students and cultivate skills that will equip them to tackle the societal challenges of the future in their personal lives and as a component of their careers. University instructors ought to impart their discipline specific knowledge to their students and create curricula that facilitate deep learning opportunities that allow students to formulate their own solutions for sustainable development (Warburton, 2003).

To this end, a university campus itself can serve as a model system for students to learn about and engage in sustainability practices. Campuses have many parallels to small cities (Alshuwaikhat & Abubakar, 2008). Like a municipal government, campus administrators can promote energy efficiency, water conservation, campus greening, life-cycle analysis of consumer products, food security, public health, social justice reforms, and an awareness of the relationship between local and global issues. At the curricular level, faculty can pique student interest in sustainability issues by tailoring their curriculum to respond to shifts in national and global economic, social, and environmental realities (Assadourian, 2017; Wals & Jickling, 2002). A thoughtful sustainability programming framework creates opportunities for students to engage in problem solving on contemporary issues that are relevant to their lives and encourages interdisciplinary interaction, higher order thinking, diverse project partners perspectives, self-determination, and creativity. In sum, administrators should develop a clear vision of a campus sustainability framework that integrates coursework, research, co-curricular activities, campus facility operations, and outreach into the community to maximize student engagement, intellectual growth, and self-actualization (Wals & Jickling, 2002).

Universities implement sustainability surveys for diverse reasons including gaining insight into the state of sustainability issues with respect to governance, operations, education, research, and outreach (Yarime & Tanaka, 2012). The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) is an example of a platform to aggregate institutional data. STARS provides a common set of benchmarks for tracking internal improvements over time and comparison across institutions. It was developed starting in the United States in 2006 by gathering feedback from AASHE workshop attendees (AASHE, 2021; Caeiro et al., 2020). An optional element of STARS is a sustainability literacy and campus culture assessment that provides a deeper analysis of strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in campus programming. The University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) sustainability survey reported herein was initially developed to meet the STARS criteria and obtain a baseline understanding of our students’ sustainability behaviors, knowledge, attitudes, and awareness of and participation in campus and community sustainability-related events.

Previous sustainability surveys at UMD showed that, although the campus community was concerned about sustainability, acknowledged their responsibility to contribute to a sustainable world, and understood social, economic, and environmental actions necessary to make progress toward sustainability goals, they were “rarely involved in activities that promote sustainability” (Gilbertson & LaCaille, 2016, p. 2). In other words, the campus community was aware of sustainability issues but stopped short of becoming engaged. Broadly in the literature, value-action gaps have been explained by the theory of planned behavior where action stems from behavioral intention which is affected by attitudes, social norms, and perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1991) and the value-belief-norm theory in which a chain of influence from personal values, to awareness of consequences and personal responsibility, to the development of personal norms leads to behaviors (Stern et al., 1999). Value-action gaps similar to UMD’s have been previously reported with university students and have been attributed to a range of contributing factors including a lack of information, self-efficacy, and financial means as well as the attitudes of cohabitants and the displacement of responsibility to other people or entities (Chaplin & Wyton, 2014).

Survey results can be used to develop campus programming that targets the causes of value-action gaps. For example, a 2012 survey at UMD led to the adoption of a university-wide sustainability course designation and a one-course sustainability requirement for all undergraduates (Beery & Roatch, 2012). This survey was followed with participant interviews that showed that students value convenience and participate in sustainability behaviors with the fewest barriers (Beery, 2013). The data informed new campus policies such as a compostable plate and utensil requirement and the widespread availability of composting bins. In this way, the value-action gap was narrowed by university initiatives that changed sustainability norms and reduced barriers to action.

Here we report on a sustainability survey that builds on previous work in three ways. First, our survey was specifically designed to provide baseline information and to be repeated over time so that the impact of changes can be assessed. Second, the survey content was expanded beyond environmental sustainability in accordance with the broader definition embraced by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2022). Questions about economic sustainability and social justice were included to address the full meaning of sustainability. Finally, our survey also collected student demographic data to help understand which student populations were underserved by programming. Our survey goals were threefold: 1) to create a baseline data set of UMD undergraduate student sustainability behavior, knowledge, and attitudes, 2) to identify student groups that would benefit from targeted sustainability initiatives, and 3) to evaluate the value-action gaps among our students. This information will guide program development at UMD and assess its effectiveness over time.


This survey was conducted at UMD, a medium-sized public university located in Duluth, Minnesota. Inspired by the work of the Ohio State University (Walpole et al., 2019), we developed a survey which included two reliable and validated tools (Zwickle & Jones, 2018) that permits us to track improvements over time and compare our campus to other institutions. This 51-question survey was largely modeled, with permission, after the Ohio State University’s 2018 Campus Sustainability Survey (Walpole et al., 2019). Following their example, our survey had five sections that measured students: 1) behaviors, 2) knowledge, 3) attitudes, as well as awareness of and participation in 4) campus programming, and 5) curriculum in relation to sustainability.

Sections 1-3, Sustainability Behaviors, Knowledge, and Attitudes: The first three sections of the survey assessed student attributes. Section 1 (Q1-17) was designed to attain information on the frequency with which students engage in sustainability behaviors such as recycling and conscious water consumption (see supplemental Table S1 for a full list of survey questions).

Teather Etterson Table S1

Frequency was measured on a 5-point Likert scale from “never” (1) to “always” (5). Section 2 (Q18-29) assessed sustainability knowledge employing the Assessing Sustainability Knowledge (ASK) instrument (Zwickle & Jones, 2018) that has 12 multiple choice questions that vary in difficulty. Validity tests show sustainability majors score higher than students from other disciplines, college seniors score higher than freshman, and high scores are significantly correlated with environmental attitudes. Section 3 (Q30-40) assessed sustainability attitudes using the Sustainability Attitude Scale (SAS; Zwickle & Jones, 2018). The validity SAS questions were assessed by comparison to the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP), an analysis that showed that SAS results had greater predictive power of sustainability behaviors and beliefs than the NEP (Zwickle & Jones, 2018). The SAS assessed sustainability attitudes on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (7).

Sections 4-5, Participation in Campus Programming and Curriculum: The final two sections evaluated the effectiveness of campus sustainability programming and curriculum as measured by student awareness of and engagement in these activities. Section 4 (Q41-45) measured students’ attitudes towards campus sustainability co-curricular and curricular programming. The first question (Q41) measured the influence of campus sustainability programming on students’ decision to attend UMD on a 5-point Likert scale with responses ranging from “not at all” (1) to “a great deal” (5). The other five questions measured students’ awareness of campus sustainability activities using a 7-point Likert scale with responses ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (7). Section 5 (Q46-51) measured student interest and awareness of the sustainability curriculum at UMD starting with an assessment of the number of sustainability courses students would prefer to take as a part of their major requirements (Q46). Responses ranged from “none” to “four or more.” Other questions related to the student’s perceived value of sustainability education and employed a 7-point Likert scale as above.

Data: With Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, anonymized participant demographic information was obtained. Demographic data used in data analysis were: gender (male, female, or unidentified); academic college (Labovitz School of Business and Economics, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, College of Liberal Arts, College of Education and Human Service Professions, and School of Fine Arts; referred to hereafter as Bus/Econ, Sci/Eng, Lib Art, Ed/Health and Fine Art); residency (on or off campus); academic year (semester number 1-8); and race/ethnicity (White, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian, Black, Hawaiian, International, Not Specified). International students comprised <2% of respondents and were removed from data analysis due to small sample size. In April 2020, the survey was sent to 2,676 randomly sampled undergraduates which included full-time students over the age of 18 years.

Data analysis: Ordinal data (e.g., scores that ranged from 1-5 or 1-7) were analyzed with ordinal logistic models (JMP Pro version 14.0.0, SAS Institute, Inc. 2018). Five explanatory factors were included in each model: 1) self-identified gender (“gender,” hereafter), 2) academic college, 2) year in school (nested within academic college), 3) campus residence status (i.e., on or off campus), and 3) self-identified race/ethnic group. We report the Chi-square test statistics and their associated p-values from Maximum Likelihood analyses. For binary responses (i.e., correct/incorrect), we analyzed the data using a generalized linear model assuming a binomial distribution with a logit link. For factors with more than two possible outcomes (e.g., college), we used Tukey’s post-hoc tests to determine which level of the factor (e.g., which college) differed significantly from the others.

Gaps between students’ values and their actions were identified in two ways. First, for all students combined, we calculated the Pearson’s correlation coefficients, r, between the average behavior score (Section 1) and average scores in the other survey sections: Section 2, Knowledge (percent correct); Section 3, Attitudes; Section 4, Campus engagement; Section 5, Curricular engagement. Second, to explore specific hypotheses, we calculated the same set of correlations as described above but for gender and campus residence data subsets.


Survey participants: The survey was partly or fully completed by 348 students (13% return). All students self-identified as either male or female. Females were almost twice as likely as males to complete the survey (Fig. 1a). Students from each of the five colleges were represented in the participant pool (Fig. 1b). Advanced students in their junior and senior years were 26% more likely to complete the survey compared to sophomores and freshmen (Fig. 1c). Students who live off campus were 18% more likely to participate compared to those that live on campus (Fig. 1d). Of the respondents, 87% self-reported their ethnicity as White with 13% identifying with the other ethnic categories combined (Asian, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian) which is closely aligned with the demographics of UMD’s student body (Fig. 1e). The percentage of questions for which demographic factors were significant included: gender (30%); campus residence (22%); academic college (37%); year in school within college (29%); and ethnicity (24%). Below, we present the survey results for each of the five thematic sections. For each section, we describe general patterns in the survey results and how they relate to the five pieces of demographic information that were included herein. Finally, we evaluate the value-action gaps across the data set.

FIGURE 1. Stacked bar chart showing percentages of student participants in five demographic factors with subcategories ordered from from largest (bottom) to smallest percentages (top): A. Gender (female, male), B. College (Sci/Eng, Health/Ed, Bus/Econ, Lib Art, Fine Art), C. Year (junior, senior, sophomore, freshman), D. Residence (off campus, on campus), E. Race/Ethnicity (White, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic, Black, no response).

Section 1. Behaviors: The extent to which students engaged in sustainability behaviors varied broadly (Fig. 2, Table 1 Section 1).

FIGURE 2. Horizontal stacked bar graphs showing the percentage of all possible answers for survey questions within the five sections. Section 1: Behaviors (Q1-17) ranged from “Always” (black) to “Never” (white). Section 2: Knowledge (Q18-29) responses are shown as correct (black) or incorrect (white). Section 3: Attitudes (Q30-40) ranged from “Strongly Agree” (black) to Strongly Disagree (white). Section 4: Participation in campus programming (Q41-45) and Section 5: Participation in curriculum (Q46-50) ranged from “Strongly Agree” (black) to Strongly Disagree (white) with two exceptions. Q41 asked students how important sustainability was for their college choice, “A Great Deal” (black) to “Not At All” (white). Q47 asked students how many sustainability courses they would be interested in taking, “Four or more” (black) to “None” (white).

Teather Etterson Figure 2 PDF

The majority of students indicated that they “always” or “often” engaged in some behaviors such as turning off lights, (Q1, 96%), recycling (Q6, 94%), and printing on both sides of paper (Q4, 53%). A large percentage “never” or “rarely” engaged in other behaviors such as participating in student sustainability organizations (Q16, 74%), attending sustainability events on campus (Q14, 77%), participating in political action/activism related to the environment (Q15, 78%), and attending off-campus sustainability events (Q17, 83%).

At least one of the five demographic factors was significantly associated with student responses to the behavioral questions with three exceptions. Differences between female and male students were especially striking; gender was a significant factor for 41% of the Section 1 survey questions. Females were significantly more likely than males to engage sustainability behaviors with respect to the following: water bottle use (Fig. 3a), reduced meat consumption (Fig. 3b), recycling (Fig. 3c), using reusable bags (Fig. 3e), purchasing second-hand items (Fig. 3f), and attending on-campus sustainability events (Fig. 3g). Male students only had a higher sustainability ranking for one question related to powering down electronics (Fig. 3d).

FIGURE 3. Bar graphs showing estimated means (SE) for all questions for which there were significant differences between female and male students for the five survey sustainability survey sections: 1) Behaviors, 2) Knowledge, 3) Attitudes, and 4) Campus Engagement (no significant results in Section 5) Curriculum Engagement.

Behavioral differences were also detected between on- and off-campus students for 35% of questions. Compared to on-campus residents, students who lived off campus were significantly more likely to eat organic or local food (Fig. 4a), conserve water (Fig. 4b), conserve home energy (Fig. 4c), engage in political action and/or activism (Fig. 4d), participate in organizations and volunteer (Fig. 4e), and attend off-campus sustainability-related events (Fig. 4f).

FIGURE 4. Bar graphs showing estimated means (SE) for all questions for which there were significant differences between on-campus and off-campus student residents for the five survey sustainability survey sections: 1) Behaviors, 2) Knowledge, 3) Attitudes, 4) Campus Engagement, and 5) Curriculum Engagement.

College affiliation was a significant explanatory variable for 35% of the sustainability behavior questions. Student responses were associated with their respective college for the following: reducing meat consumption (Q3), recycling (Q6), conserving water (Q10) and home energy (Q11), participating in organizations and volunteering (Q16), and attending off-campus events (Q17). However, there was no consistent pattern in the ranking of colleges (Fig. S1a-f).

SUPPLEMENTAL FIGURE S1. Bar graphs showing estimated means (SE) for all questions for which there were significant differences between colleges for the five survey sustainability survey sections: 1) Behaviors, 2) Knowledge, 3) Attitudes, 4) Campus engagement, and 5) Curriculum engagement.

Teather Etterson Figure S1 PDF (Full Figure)

For 24% of the questions in this section, the students’ year in school (within their college) also had a significant impact on their sustainability behaviors. Interestingly, in three of the four instances of statistical significance, earlier-term students had higher sustainability behavior scores than later-term students. For example, earlier-term Bus/Econ and Sci/Eng students had higher scores than later-term students with respect to local and/or organic food consumption (Q5). The only exception to the direction of this effect was in Fine Arts where later-term students were more likely to recycle than earlier-term students (Q6). There was no overall relationship between year in school and the average sustainability behavior score, even in a simple regression analysis with no other demographic factors included (F1,341=0.11; P = 0.74).

Despite the low ethnic diversity in our survey participant pool, we detected significant differences among ethnic/racial groups for 29% of questions in this section, including: home energy conservation (Fig. 5a), participation in on-campus (Fig. 5b) and off-campus events (Fig. 5d), and engagement in student organizations and/or volunteering (Fig. 5e). In general, American Indian, Asian, and Black students reported a higher likelihood of engaging in these sustainability behaviors, but there was also broad variance around the means as would be expected because of the small sample size. Hispanic and White students had lower scores that were sometimes significantly lower than the other ethnic/racial groups.

FIGURE 5. Bar graphs showing estimated means (SE) for all questions for which there were significant differences between ethnic/racial groups for the five sustainability survey sections: 1) Behaviors, 2) Knowledge, 3) Attitudes, 4) Campus Engagement, and 5) Curriculum Engagement.

Teather Etterson Figure 5 PDF (Full Figure)

Section 2. Knowledge: On average, students provided the correct response to 66% of the sustainability knowledge questions (Fig. 2, Table 1, Section 2). Most students provided the correct answer for questions related to sustainable lifestyles (Q21, 100%), ozone protection (Q19, 90%), the largest carbon-emitting countries (Q26, 86%), and changes in wealth disparities in the USA (Q23, 85%). In contrast, very few students correctly answered questions about the causes of fish stock depletion (Q27, 25%) and the features of a sustainable economy (Q25, 39%).

Overall, demographic factors had less impact on student responses to knowledge-based questions than any other section in the survey. Nevertheless, there were a few significant results as follows. Male students were 27% more likely to understand the reason why US electricity costs are low compared to female students (Fig. 3h). On-campus residents were 18% more likely to recognize an issue related to environmental justice compared to off-campus residents (Fig. 4g). Student’s knowledge differed depending upon college affiliation for questions related to the sources of carbon emissions (Fig. S1g) and the severity of environmental impacts (Fig. S1h). Again, there was no consistent pattern in average scores between students in different colleges. In terms of year in school, there were significant trends for three issues: sustainable forest management (Q20, Health/Ed freshman > seniors), the wealth gap in the US (Q23, Sci/Eng and Lib Arts seniors > freshman), and environmental justice (Q28, Sci/Eng and Lib Arts seniors > freshman). Ethnic/racial differences were evident for the average correct response rate (Fig. 5e) and for three specific questions: sustainable forest management (Fig. 5f), the wealth gap in the USA (Fig. 5g), and economic sustainability (Fig. 5h), but there was no general pattern across questions. Finally, a simple regression analysis of the overall average knowledge score in the section (Q18-29) and year in school showed that survey participants scored higher over time (F1,322 = 7.08; P = 0.008). However, in the full analysis, this trend was not consistent for students in every college. Although later-term Sci/Eng students were more likely to provide the correct answer than earlier-term students, other colleges showed different trends.

Section 3. Attitudes: The average sustainability attitude score was high (6.18/7), indicating strong overall agreement with the sustainability attitude statements in this section (Fig. 2, Table 1, Section 3). Almost all students agreed or strongly agreed about the value of clean air (Q37, 96%) and clean water (Q33, 92%). In contrast, students were least likely to agree or strongly agree with statements suggesting that consumerism is not sustainable (Q32, 43%) and that an economy that values personal wealth functions at the cost of others (Q35, 69%).

Four of five demographic factors were significantly associated with student attitude scores for at least one question. Female and male sustainability attitudes differed significantly for four questions, and, in all cases, female students had higher scores than male students. Compared to males, females were more likely to agree that consumerism is not sustainable (Fig. 3i) and expressed willingness to reduce personal environmental impacts (Fig. 3j) and consumption of natural resources (Fig. 3k). They were also more likely to indicate that they were affected by the wellbeing of others compared to male students (Fig. 3l). Averaging across all questions in Section 3, female students had 4.9% higher attitude scores than male students (Fig. 3m). Campus residence only had a significant effect on one attitude question; respondents that lived off campus expressed greater agreement with the need to reduce personal environmental impacts (Fig. 4h).

College affiliation was significantly associated with student sustainability attitudes for five questions related to equal rights (Fig. S1i), community cooperation (Fig. S1j), the sustainability of consumerism (Fig. S1k), features of an unsustainable economy (Fig. S1l), and the value of biodiversity (Fig. S1m). Although the highest-ranking college differed between questions, students in the Bus/Eco were either the lowest scoring or tied for the lowest scoring for each of these questions. On average, students in Lib Art and Fine Art had the highest sustainability attitudes scores that were significantly higher than Bus/Econ which had the lowest (Fig. S1n). Neither year in school nor ethnicity had any significant impact on sustainability attitudes.

Section 4. Campus Programming: Most survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they knew how to dispose of waste, recyclables, and compost on campus (Q43, 82%) and thought that they could personally influence sustainability on campus (Q44, 67%, Fig. 2, Table 1, Section 4). Students were less confident that they were aware of sustainability initiatives on campus (Q45, 44%) or knew how to ride the public buses (Q42, 35%). Few students considered sustainability programming to be a factor in college selection (Q41, 16%).

Demographic factors had numerous significant effects on student responses to sustainability engagement questions. Gender was a significant factor for two campus programming questions. Compared to males, females were 16% more likely to consider sustainability opportunities when choosing a university (Fig. 2n) and were 10% more aware of campus sustainability initiatives (Fig. 1o). For residence status, students living off-campus were more confident using the city bus system compared to students living on campus (Fig. 4i).

Student survey responses also differed significantly according to college affiliation for four campus programming questions, including: awareness of campus waste disposal (Fig. S1o), confidence in personal ability to influence campus sustainability (Fig. S1p), awareness of sustainability initiatives (Fig. S1q), and ability to find additional information about campus sustainability initiatives (Fig. S15). Fine Art students were more aware of campus sustainability offerings than students in other colleges. Students’ year in school also influenced survey responses for some academic colleges. For example, Sci/Eng freshmen were more likely to be influenced by sustainability programming (Q41), were more confident riding the bus (Q42) and were more aware of campus waste disposal initiatives (Q43) compared to seniors. Interestingly, Bus/Econ freshmen were more aware of campus sustainability initiatives (Q45) than seniors, but the opposite was true for Fine Arts students.

Students’ self-reported race/ethnicity was also a significant factor in explaining student awareness of campus sustainability efforts, especially for confidence in riding the city bus (Fig. 5l), awareness of sustainability initiatives on campus (Fig. 5j), and ability to find information about sustainability-related events, programs, or student organization meetings (Fig. 5k). In all cases, Black students were more likely to be aware of campus sustainability efforts compared to Hispanic or White students, whereas other ethnic groups were not distinguishable.

Section 5. Curriculum: Sixty four percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they could become involved in campus sustainability programming regardless of their major (Q48), but fewer were aware of sustainability educational offerings (Q50, 39%). Less than half of the students thought that employers were interested in hiring people with sustainability related knowledge and skills (Q49, 45%). Only 19% of the students indicated that they wanted to take three or more sustainability courses as a part of their undergraduate curriculum (Q47). Most students, 63%, were interested in taking one or two sustainability courses, and 18% preferred not to take any such courses.

The gender of respondents had no significant effect on any questions in this section. Campus residency, however, was significant for two questions. Students who lived off campus were significantly more interested in taking sustainability-related courses than those living on campus (Fig. 4j) and were more likely to think that future employers would value sustainability knowledge and skills (Fig. 4k). Students in Lib Arts were significantly more interested in taking sustainability courses compared to students in other colleges (Fig. S1s). Students’ year in school also influenced student interest in sustainability and, in each case, earlier-term students gave more positive responses relative to later-term students. Specifically, compared to seniors, Health/Ed, Bus/Econ, and Sci/Eng freshman were interested in taking more sustainability courses (Q47), Health/Ed and Sci/Eng freshman were more likely to think students could be involved in sustainability regardless of their major (Q48), and Sci/Eng freshman were more likely to think future employers would be interested in sustainability knowledge and skills (Q49). Regarding ethnicity/race, Asian students were more likely than Hispanic students to think that sustainability knowledge and skills would be important to prospective employers (Q49). Other ethnic/racial groups were not distinguishable.

Value-action gaps: To determine which factors related to student sustainability behaviors, we examined the correlations between the average behavior score and the average scores in all other survey sections. Considering all students combined, there was no significant correlation between students’ sustainability behavior and knowledge scores (Fig. 6).

FIGURE 6. Pearson’s correlation coefficients, r, between student’s average behavior scores and their average scores in the knowledge, attitudes, and campus and curricular engagement sections. Correlations for all students are shown with black bars. Correlations for data subsets are also shown for female students (off campus, gray bars; on campus, gray stippled bars) and male students (off campus, white bars; on campus, white stippled bars). * P < 0.05; ** P < 0.01; ***P < 0.001

However, sustainability behaviors were weakly but statistically significantly correlated with the average attitude score (r = 0.21), and the average scores for campus (r = 0.15) and curricular (r = 0.14) engagement. When the data was broken down into gender and campus residence subsets, the most frequently significant demographic factors in previous analyses, there was still no significant relationship between the sustainability knowledge and behavior scores. However, correlations between sustainability attitudes and behavior differed among demographic groups and were stronger and significant for females living off campus (r = 0.31) and males living on campus (r = 0.47) but were not significant for other demographic groupings. The strongest relationship between the average sustainability behavior and the average score for any other survey section was for males who lived off campus who were actively engaged in campus sustainability activity (r = 0.47). Aside from these three significant correlations, there were no other important relationships between the students’ behavior scores and their sustainability knowledge, attitudes, and campus and/or curricular engagement.


This survey provided insight into a cohort of Gen Z students’ understanding of and attitudes toward sustainability issues and the extent to which these translate into individual behaviors. The analysis of our survey data revealed three major patterns that will inform future strategies for sustainability program development. First, students have an uneven understanding of fundamental pillars of sustainability with a particular deficit in the economic realm. Second, some student demographic groups are not being reached by our programming, especially male students and those who live on campus. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our study showed that this cohort of Gen Z students was knowledgeable about and had positive attitudes toward sustainability principals, but they were less likely to act on their values. Narrowing these gaps is important to meet the ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and train a generation of changemakers prepared to advance sustainability in both their personal and professional lives.

Knowledge gaps: Our survey revealed students did not understand or value sustainability issues in the realm of business and economics as thoroughly as other subject areas. On average, student participant scores were the lowest for both economic knowledge questions (< 40% correct) and economic-related attitude questions (Q32, 34, 35). In addition, Bus/Econ students themselves scored among the lowest tier of colleges for all questions survey-wide, although not always significantly lower. Collectively, these results suggest students’ understanding of economic sustainability is weaker than in other domains. This may be due, in part, to a lack of relevant courses (Green, 2015). Although Bus/Econ majors account for >20% of the UMD student body, the college only offers 5% of the sustainability courses available on campus. Moreover, it is still an open question whether sustainability courses in other colleges integrate economic perspectives into their curriculum. Similarly, Barrella and Watson (2018) found economic sustainability to be the least emphasized element of sustainability in engineering curriculums, and the least understood and applied element of sustainability by engineering students. Given the pivotal role of business in a capitalist society and the critical role of financial considerations in daily decision making, it is incumbent upon universities to provide an understanding of the critical role of economics in building a sustainable society.

To address this issue, we recommend a thorough review of the sustainability curriculum in each college and especially for courses that satisfy the undergraduate sustainability liberal education requirement. A similar review was conducted by Western Michigan University by analyzing syllabi and interviewing instructors (Khan & Henderson, 2020). Results showed not all courses met the sustainability-focused course requirements and course instructors were often unaware their course was sustainability-focused. Feedback to instructors in all disciplines could emphasize the importance including economic perspectives in course material. Additionally, we recommend more opportunities for interdisciplinary learning so students improve their critical thinking and can tackle complex sustainability issues (Howlett et al., 2016). Approaches could include collaboration between instructors with the help of a project coordinator; guest lecturers; final projects that encourage students to integrate knowledge; and creating curricula that builds on students’ prior knowledge and encourages reflection (Annan-Diab & Molinari, 2017; Braßler & Sprenger, 2021; Pharo et al., 2012).

Demographic gaps: Across our dataset, female students tended to score higher than male students on questions related to sustainability behaviors, attitudes, and campus engagement. This is not a novel finding and has been reported in children, youth, and adults (Olsson & Gericke, 2017; Sahin et al., 2012; Zelezny et al., 2000). Another study on Gen Z showed females have stronger sustainability attitudes than males (Salas-Zapata & Cardona-Arias, 2020). Some authors have hypothesized that personality differences explain this disparity (Desrochers et al., 2019) and suggest females are inherently more conscientious than males, thus more likely to choose sustainable behaviors to protect the environment. Others have argued females tend to care deeply for and protect their environment because of strong emotional bonds with nature (Sahin et al., 2012). In any case, collectively these studies identify a gap in sustainability messaging and programming that warrant greater efforts to appeal to all students.

Another striking demographic finding was that off-campus residents consistently scored higher than on-campus residents across all parts of the survey. This is not simply a function of student age given that we statistically controlled for students’ year-in-school in the analyses. Alternatively, living off campus may require greater financial independence and self-efficacy that empowers economic and value-based lifestyle decisions. For example, off-campus residents were more likely to buy organic/local food, conserve water, and attend off-campus events. Off-campus residents may also absorb sustainability attitudes and practices reflected in their community (Emanuel & Adams, 2011). UMD is embedded in the small city of Duluth, MN (USA), a community that embraces environmental protection, as illustrated by 11,000 acres of green space adjacent to Lake Superior, 129 parks, and over 200 miles of trails. The city has also enacted sustainability policies that enable the transition to renewable energy, promote energy conservation, and reduce plastic waste (Granley, 2020). It is likely that financial considerations, student self-reliance, and exposure to sustainability concepts on campus and in the community, each play an integral role enhancing sustainability action by off-campus residents.

To reach students across other demographic factors, such as gender and residence (and race/ethnicity though results varied in significance in this category) we recommend the sustainability office collaborate with other hubs on campus where students have already built close communities. Identity, and the associated ingroup norms, affect sustainability behavior, and conversely, behavior can be influenced through group interventions (Fielding et al., 2008; Fritsche et al., 2018). Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, meaning universities are filled with different cultures, and thus need to reimagine how to engage all students (Pew Research Center, 2018). For example, University of San Diego and UC Santa Cruz both better engaged students of color through offering continuous programming between their sustainability offices and multicultural centers (Fonseca, 2018; Lu et al., 2017). Sustainability programming could be integrated with other already existing communities to attract a wide audience, such as resident halls, sports teams, and cultural clubs.

Behavior gaps: Environmental knowledge is considered an essential component of developing ecological behavior, however, recent research has pointed to the other influences in this relationship, like intention, social norms, attitudes, and nature connectedness (Bamberg & Möser, 2007; Liu et al., 2020; Otto & Pensini, 2017). One of the most striking results of our study was the disjunction between students’ sustainability knowledge and their sustainability actions. Although our students scored relatively well in the knowledge section (66% correct, comparatively California State University Northridge scored an average of 54% in a sample of 2,993 undergraduate students; Lundquist et al., 2018), there was no significant positive relationship between sustainability knowledge and behaviors across the full dataset, or within any demographic subset of student data. The absence of a direct knowledge-behavior relationship has previously been reported (Heeren et al., 2016; Li et al., 2019, Liobikienė & Poškus, 2019). This knowledge-behavior gap is important for sustainability leaders to note because it indicates that increasing understanding alone is not sufficient to elicit behavioral change. Theories in behavior change speculate perceived behavioral control, attitudes toward personal responsibility, and personal and societal norms may better explain behavior gaps (Ajzen, 1991; Stern et al., 1999).

We anticipated our students would have high sustainability attitude scores given the emerging consensus about Gen Z values that prioritize justice and creating a better world (Dabija et al., 2019). Indeed, this expectation was borne out. UMD sustainability attitude scores were high (6.19/7) and like those reported elsewhere (i.e., 6.09/7, Walpole et al., 2019). Based on previous studies, we anticipated positive environmental attitudes would mediate the relationship between environmental knowledge and behaviors (Liu et al., 2020). Yet, in our study, we found surprisingly weak, albeit statistically significant, relationships between students’ attitude scores and their behavior scores (r = 0.21, P = 0.0002), campus engagement scores (r = 0.15, P = 0.01), and curricular engagement scores (r = 0.14, P = 0.02). This means, although sustainability behaviors may increase with attitudinal shifts, the amount of predicted change is modest. Moreover, it suggests other factors play an important role in inhibiting behavioral changes, such as cost (Rosentrater & Burke, 2017), attitudes of cohabitants, and displacement of responsibility to other people or entities (Chaplin & Wyton, 2014). Social norms, the unwritten rules of a society, are likely have a powerful influence on behavior (Legros & Cislaghi, 2020) and have been shown to affect energy conservation habits, eco-friendly consumer choices, sustainable food choices (Cialdini & Jacobson, 2021; Farrow et al., 2017), and recently, willingness to get the COVID vaccine (Graupensperger et al., 2021). It may be especially valuable to use the power of social norms to influence Gen Z given the rapid transmission of ideas that occurs over social media (Swartz et al., 2017). At present, however, our campus has not effectively used the power of social norms to increase sustainability behaviors, and thus we focused part of our recommendations on the possibilities for behavior change through this avenue.

Two strategies have been recommended in the literature to shift social norms (Sparkman et al., 2021). First, messaging can draw student attention by utilizing the dynamic nature of social norms. Recognition of social trends over time can elicit personal change even if it counters current normative behavior. This may be an especially useful strategy for communication via social media. A second approach is to present the issue as an invitation to work together to solve a problem. Gen Z students are determined, social activists, and one of the most politically active generations (Swartz et al., 2017). To meet this enthusiasm for justice and a better world, university events should position sustainability as a cause beyond environmentalism and promote events as opportunities for students to work together.

Students perceived behavioral control over sustainability is also a factor at play in the value-action gap. Building self-efficacy, or confidence in our ability to affect change in our social environment (Bandura, 1977), positively affects sustainability behaviors (Schutte & Bhullar, 2017). Better yet, improving self-efficacy also benefits one’s mental health and sense of purpose, though is negatively impacted by stress (Flynn & Chow, 2017; Gull, 2016). Additionally, higher self-efficacy in college students positively influences their sense of purpose in life and leads to higher retention rates in school (DeWitz et al., 2009). Gen Z is stressed about global climate issues; they report high levels of depression and anxiety, including climate anxiety (American Psychological Association, 2018; Hickman et al., 2021). Increasing self-efficacy, while increasing sustainability behaviors, can also lessen climate anxiety in young people as it helps them cope with their anxieties in a tangible way and provide hope (Clayton, 2020). While the main goal of sustainability education may be to develop students who take sustainable actions, we know that is impossible if students are mentally unwell. Nurturing self-efficacy in students can help address environmental and student health concerns and increase sustainability behaviors.

An individual’s or a group’s collective belief in their own capacity to act, or their self-efficacy or collective efficacy, respectively (Bandura, 1977, 2000) influences their pro-environmental behaviors (Bandura, 2000; Sawitri et al., 2015; Shafiei & Maleksaeidi, 2020). Jugert et al. (2016) found that enhancing collective efficacy increased self-efficacy, thus increased pro-environmental behaviors. Moreover, Chen (2015) found collective efficacy was a better predictor of pro-environmental behaviors than self-efficacy. Low self-efficacy and low collective efficacy, combined with a lack of sustainability norms on campus, could explain the value-action gap observed in our study.

To increase self-efficacy among our students, we recommend offering more service-learning opportunities. In service learning, students are paired with community partners to collectively solve a problem. Gen Z students in the United States are likely to resonate with this approach as they are characterized as being kind, open-ended, thoughtful, compassionate, and determined, and they desire logic-based and active learning in their classes (Seemiller et al., 2019). Molderez and Fonseca (2018) found service-learning projects gave their university students a sense of hope, and increased their sustainability competencies, such as systems thinking, creative thinking, and action competence. Civic engagement can also build social bonds and community support through the partnerships, increasing collective efficacy as well (Collins et al., 2014). While research shows low self-efficacy is a concern and has been reported among Gen Z students (World Economic Forum, 2021), our survey did not measure such and we would also recommend UMD and other universities assess this factor in future research. Additionally, assessing what the social norms of sustainability are on campus, such as through focus groups, could better unearth the role this factor plays in sustainability behavior.

Lastly, implementation of campus strategies to reduce the value-action gap among students is dependent upon faculty and staff who are willing to create relevant sustainability learning opportunities. To assess enthusiasm for this work, UMD conducted a faculty and staff sustainability survey (N= 559, 2017) which showed that 91% of the respondents were either somewhat or very interested in sustainability efforts in their division. However, a lack of time and training were considered important barriers. This underscores the critical role of college administrators who need to set priorities and provide the necessary resources to promote progress. For example, since this 2017 study, the University of Minnesota system developed a new strategic plan that explicitly prioritizes sustainability. This has resulted in the development of a campus climate plan which will, hopefully, be followed with financial resources. We recommend another survey of similar nature to reassess faculty interest in and understanding of sustainability and education for sustainable development and use these results to further influence the campus administration and vision.


In the coming years, sustained commitment from campus leadership will be critical to achieving these sustainability goals and executing these recommendations (Lozano et al., 2015). We know this will not be easy, but we also know that it is necessary. While these recommendations aim to improve sustainability perspectives in students and faculty, the process of achieving them will do more than that. They will also build student confidence, new teaching competencies in faculty, and build community throughout the university. Faculty and staff at any university can champion many of our recommendations in this paper, though top-down support is still needed from campus administration to finance and encourage progress (Brinkhurst et al., 2011). Decision-makers need to heed our students’ call for increased sustainability on campus. While we see progress being made in the University of Minnesota system through the most recent strategic plan, such as progress in combating hunger and recently hiring a systemwide chief sustainability officer (Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, 2023), an updated survey of student sustainability knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors could help show the success of this vision. Lastly, we call on other universities to utilize STARS and other means of communication to share their research and lessons learned when it comes to progressing on the SDGs on campus so we may continue to learn from one another.


This work was supported by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. We thank J. Korpi and M. Granley in the Office of Sustainability at the University of Minnesota Duluth for their important contributions to survey questions and recommendations.


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