Student investment funds prioritize sustainability: report

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • Higher education institutions are gradually adopting sustainable investment strategies. Still, according to a recent report from the Intentional Endowments Network, some student-led funds are leaning in, which advocates for using approaches that address climate change and social equity.
  • I examined 40 student-managed investment funds, or SMIFs, that use sustainable investment strategies in their network of schools. Just under half of the funds were supported by donations. A similar share (41%) was part of their college’s endowment. And about half were managed as part of a course, while a third was run through a club.
  • Colleges continue to incorporate these strategies across their investment portfolios, and the pandemic’s economic impact could provide an impetus for the change.

Dive Insight:

Sustainable investing practices have been gaining steam. Colleges are going beyond reconsidering which types of industries they are investing in. They are also reexamining how those industries and the businesses within them treat the environment, society, and workforces and how those non-financial factors can affect their performance — a strategy sometimes referred to as ESG.

More than $17 trillion of assets were being managed with ESG strategies at the close of 2019, up 42% from 2018, according to a report from US SIF, which advocates for sustainable investing. One-quarter of the funds IEN surveyed focused primarily on ESG, while a similar share emphasized impact investing when making decisions. The 40 SMIFs held $68 million in assets, representing about 10% of all SMIF assets under management in the U.S.

IEN’s report highlights how a few SMIFs are using these strategies. A student-led impact investment fund at Portland State University created in 2019 puts money behind local companies that emphasize environmental or social change. According to the report, donors seeded the fund with $160,000, and the college has plans to raise another million through donations and grants.


A similar SMIF at Northeastern University in Massachusetts was founded in 2016. Its students invest in Boston-based companies looking to address social and environmental challenges. Many colleges had their SMIFs adopt a sustainable investment philosophy following the Great Recession, the IEN report notes. A similar trend is playing out during the coronavirus pandemic, with experts predicting that higher education institutions will lean into sustainable investing across their portfolios during the health crisis.

Schools are responding to continued calls from students to divest from fossil fuels. In April, Yale University in Connecticut adopted new principles to guide its investments in companies producing fossil fuels. The school will place companies that fail to meet its new criteria, such as requirements that they support “meaningful and effective” government policies that address climate change, on a list of firms it will not invest in.

Amherst College in Massachusetts promises to stop making new investments in gas and oil companies and end its $2.5 billion endowment’s direct investments in fossil fuel industries by 2030. Since 2015, the college’s endowment, directly or indirectly invested in fossil fuels, has fallen from 6% to 3%.

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