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Individual and interlinked SDGs: higher education institutions and metro area sustainability performance

Ha Vien (Department of Public Administration, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA)
Christopher S. Galik (Department of Public Administration, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 23 February 2024

Issue publication date: 3 June 2024




Recent scholarship has explored higher education institutions’ (HEIs) role in transitioning to a sustainable society, but empirically, questions remain regarding their impact on the sustainability of surrounding areas. This study aims to examine the correlation between HEIs’ sustainability actions and local sustainability performance.


This study uses a linear regression model and principal component analysis to examine the sustainability performance of 105 US metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) using the US cities sustainable development goal (SDG) index, which hosts 427 HEIs known for sustainability efforts. The weighted HEI sustainability performance score is calculated based on the QS sustainability universities ranking.


The correlation between MSA and HEI sustainability performance exhibits a mix of positive and negative associations, with individual and interlinked SDGs serving as proxies. These correlations encompass a wide range of goals, from economic aspects of SDG 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, social aspects of SDG10 and 16, to socio-environmental aspects of SDG12.

Research limitations/implications

Further exploration is needed to identify the causal mechanisms behind associations between SDG measures and HEI sustainability performance, whether influenced by the institution, the individual or both.

Practical implications

This study suggests that HEIs are already associated with some aspects of community sustainability, but greater contributions to a broader array of sustainability measures are possible.

Social implications

The correlation found between HEI sustainability actions and SDG10, 12 and 16 index performance in an MSA highlights a connection between HEIs and the attainment of societal goals.


To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to examine the correlation between HEI and MSA sustainability performance in the US through individual and interlinked SDG proxies. It provides novel empirical evidence that demonstrates an association between HEI and some aspects of community sustainability performance.



The authors thank Dr Jeffrey Diebold and two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments in the preparation of the paper, especially in the method section. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2023 Joint Meeting of the North Carolina Political Science Association (NCPSA) and the North Carolina Public Administration Alliance (NCPAA) in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, and at the 2023 Southeastern Conference for Public Administration (SECoPa) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The authors thank the participants for their constructive comments.

Declaration of competing interest: The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

Funding: The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.


Vien, H. and Galik, C.S. (2024), "Individual and interlinked SDGs: higher education institutions and metro area sustainability performance", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 25 No. 5, pp. 962-987.



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