At Mills College in Oakland, the new Natural Sciences building is 90% more energy-efficient than most Bay Area laboratories. After prospective students received letters and tours highlighting the building, applications noting interest in environment and science studies spiked, said Giulietta Aquino, dean of undergraduate admissions.
As the trend grows, so do the ways schools can measure progress. The Assn. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is developing a system to judge campuswide sustainability, based on the country's most prominent rating system, the Green Building Council's certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, known as LEED.
In 2001, there were 42 LEED projects in the higher education sector. Between 2006 and 2007, the number nearly doubled from 769 to 1,412. As of June, 1,497 buildings were seeking certification.
The walls in the highest-rated school facility -- the Applied Research and Development facility at Northern Arizona University -- are insulated by thousands of pairs of recycled denim jeans.
Buildings at other schools sit on frames of recycled metal from cars, have countertops made of crushed traffic lights or furniture made of recycled milk jugs.
But experts warn against launching green projects -- or "painting green" -- just to impress and attract students. The experts also warn against gimmicks.
For example, a building that faces the sun and maximizes daylight has a more lasting effect than power outlets for electric vehicles, said Carels, the designer. A low-maintenance and flexible building frame can last 100 years.
"There's a tendency to be gimmicky because it has a wider general appeal," Carels said. "Schools don't always look at both the bigger as well as the micro scale."
Still, designers have unleashed a variety of techniques to conserve energy or prevent pollution.
To generate power naturally, some campuses have erected windmills.
Some "dark sky" campuses attempt to limit nighttime light pollution.
At the Yale Sculpture Building, a translucent curtain made of Nanogel -- a material known as "frozen smoke" that is 95% air -- maintains the temperature while letting natural light in.
Then there's the University of Michigan's Dana Building. In 2003, the university forked out $17 million to renovate the structure into one of the country's premier eco-friendly buildings.
The air is warmed through a sunroof and cooled by water in copper pipes. Light fixtures, all fluorescent, are powered mostly by a solar array and an on-campus power plant.
Floors are partly made of tire rubber and countertops are packed with wheat, sunflower seeds, soy flour and newspaper. The bricks from demolition were stored for future use.
And don't forget the restrooms. Low-flow, sensor-activated faucets and toilets that compost human waste into fertilizer help lower water use in rooms tiled with glass from airplane windshields.