After a year of disruptions driven by the coronavirus pandemic, colleges are ready for a return to normalcy. For some schools, that means requiring students to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in order to register for in-person classes or move into campus housing.
As of publication, a database maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that more than 680 public and private colleges across the U.S. will require students to get a coronavirus vaccine.
In addition to individual colleges announcing vaccine mandates, some large university systems are also requiring immunization, such as the State University of New York system. The 23-campus California State University system will also require vaccines. After previously signaling that it would wait for full Food and Drug Administration approval of COVID-19 vaccines before mandating inoculation, the CSU system now cites evolving circumstances as the reason for the requirement, pointing to surging coronavirus cases and the spread of the new delta variant.
Read on to learn how colleges are handling COVID-19 vaccinations as the fall semester draws near.
Why Colleges Are Requiring Coronavirus Vaccines
When the pandemic spread across the U.S. in spring 2020, colleges closed en masse, emptied dorms and classrooms, and shifted to remote instruction on the fly. Online learning continued — with mixed results — for many colleges into the fall. And those that did bring students back to campus limited capacity in residence halls, classrooms and common areas; some installed Plexiglas barriers and distributed masks and other personal protective equipment.
“Campuses really want to get back to normal operations as quickly as possible,” says Chris Marsicano, an education professor and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Now the advent of effective COVID-19 vaccines raises hope for a return to the traditional college experience, which means in-person lectures, study groups in the library, social gatherings and attendance at campus athletic events.
“If you can ensure a highly vaccinated community, you can get back to a lot of those things safely,” says Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor and chief health officer at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.
Malani adds that vaccines offer protection beyond an individual level, helping keep entire communities safe. Given the data and the millions of Americans already immunized, she describes the existing COVID-19 vaccines as “safe and effective” and encourages students to think of others when considering the shot.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, complications and deaths after getting COVID-19 immunizations — referred to as ” adverse events” — are rare in the U.S., where more than 346 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered between Dec. 14, 2020, and Aug. 2, 2021. While analysis by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland puts the mortality rate at 188 deaths per 100,000 COVID-19 infections in the U.S., or less than 2%, those fatalities skew elderly, with CDC data attributing only 2.8% of coronavirus deaths to those under age 45.
Despite high survival rates for younger generations, some experts stress that student inoculations are key to avoiding a repeat of last spring. While healthy students may be less imperiled, those experts say it’s important to stop the transmission and further mutation of the coronavirus.
“Vaccination is the short game for getting colleges open … and the long game for keeping society open,” Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor specializing in public health data at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, wrote in an email.
Breakthrough cases of COVID-19 — instances in which vaccinated individuals get infected with the coronavirus — have created new concerns for colleges this fall. In the face of this uncertainty, Malani suggests that it’s more important than ever for colleges to urge inoculations.
As with much of American higher education, how colleges approach the issue of coronavirus vaccines varies.
To get a sense of how schools are navigating this issue, U.S. News included a question about coronavirus vaccine mandates in its Best Colleges survey administered in spring and summer 2021. Of the 176 ranked National Universities — institutions that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees — that responded to this question, 97 planned to require COVID-19 vaccines of “most undergraduates … arriving on campus” in the fall. Seventy-nine reported not having a mandate, though some campuses may have changed policies since the data was collected.
Below is a list of institutions ranked among the top 30 National Universities in the current 2021 edition of Best Colleges that responded to the survey question about their intended plans for vaccine requirements.
COVID-19 vaccines are currently under emergency use authorization, a status that some experts say makes vaccine mandates a legal gray area. But with full FDA approval, immunization requirements will be par for the course considering that colleges already require students to provide proof of various other vaccinations.
“I’m a full believer that (colleges) asking students to be vaccinated prior to coming to campus or when they show up on campus is prudent, is safe, is reasonable and well within their rubric of running the campus,” Jacobson says.
Jacobson adds that existing immunization requirements against mumps, measles and other infections ultimately provide legal precedent for mandates, and a fully approved coronavirus vaccine would be no different. He adds that “full FDA approval is imminent” for COVID-19 vaccines.
But declaring vaccine mandates has prompted backlash as some states move against such measures, with some lawmakers skeptical of the efficacy of what they view as hastily developed vaccines, and others viewing requirements as governmental overreach that undermines personal freedom and medical autonomy. In Florida, for example, the state has enacted a law barring colleges from requiring a coronavirus vaccine as a condition for enrollment. That legal barrier prompted some schools to back away from previously announced plans to require vaccinations.
Some colleges are carving out medical or religious exemptions for unvaccinated students. Students who are fully online may also be exempt from vaccine requirements at some colleges.
Despite some student and parent resistance to coronavirus vaccine mandates, many colleges are forging ahead with the requirement. Students at Indiana University–Bloomington filed a legal motion that would have halted the vaccine mandate, yet that challenge was unsuccessful. Now lawyers representing those students are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an injunction to halt vaccine requirements.
How Colleges Are Encouraging Students to Get Vaccinated
Colleges are using proverbial sticks and carrots to ensure students are vaccinated before arriving on campus. Mandates may limit the opportunity to even register for classes without proof of immunization.
Malani says younger Americans aren’t getting vaccinated at high enough numbers, so incentives matter.
Some colleges that won’t have mandates are finding ways to incentivize students. Efforts to convince students to get vaccinated include doling out gift cards, T-shirts and other freebies. One college, Rowan University in New Jersey, is both requiring all students to be vaccinated and also providing monetary incentives: up to $1,000 in credit toward tuition and housing.
By contrast, West Virginia Wesleyan College recently announced plans to require unvaccinated students — or those who have not provided proof of inoculation — to pay a nonrefundable $750 fee for the fall semester, which the school says will go toward weekly testing costs. An additional fee of $250 will be charged for students living on campus who catch the coronavirus and are unable to quarantine off campus, thus using college facilities to do so.
College leaders also hope students are incentivized by a return to a normal college experience that isn’t distorted by the pandemic.
“The students are getting a benefit by being vaccinated, even though they personally may not have the health risks,” Jacobson says, noting that COVID-19 tends to be less fatal and severe for young people. “It’s enabling the campuses to open up in a manner that benefits their education and their social interactions. And that has value.”
Giving away free college gear, event tickets or even money makes financial sense for some colleges if it increases the vaccination rates among the student population, Marsicano says. COVID-19 prevention efforts have proven costly, and a return to full residence halls and dining facilities means more money flowing into college bank accounts.
“Colleges are highly financially incentivized to try to get students to get the vaccine,” says Marsicano, explaining that in the long run it’s cheaper to offer something of value than to test students weekly for the coronavirus.
Experts expect peer influences to also play a part in driving up vaccination rates among students, particularly if there are fewer restrictions on events and gatherings due to participants and attendees being immunized. Then there’s the convenience factor for immunized students who can skip the weekly testing that may be required of their unvaccinated classmates.
Malani adds that parents should think about the risks and safety issues that students face in college.
“When you send your student off to college, there are a lot of risks that you have to think about. And COVID-19 is one of many,” Malani says, adding that parents can mitigate the coronavirus risk by getting their child vaccinated.
What to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines This Fall
Given differing approaches to vaccine requirements, it can be difficult for prospective and returning students to know what to expect. In addition to checking with individual colleges for their respective policies, students can find a list of colleges mandating vaccines via the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Once vaccinated, students will likely have to upload proof of immunization via college websites, experts say. Given the availability of vaccine supply in the U.S., college students should now be able to easily get immunized. Additionally, some colleges are distributing vaccines themselves, meaning there will be in-house records.
For students who previously contracted the coronavirus, Malani notes that “it’s still unknown if prior infection results in definite immunity” to COVID-19 and that the full vaccine dosage is recommended. Given ongoing studies, that could change, she says.
“From a practical standpoint, it’s easier logistically to just vaccinate someone,” Malani adds.
While the U.S. has widely distributed three vaccines, similar shots developed by different pharmaceutical manufacturers are being offered in other countries. International students with limited access to vaccines or questions about which immunizations will be recognized by U.S. colleges should contact school officials for more information and familiarize themselves with CDC travel guidance, experts say.
Malani encourages students to think about vaccines through the lens of overall community safety.
“With public health, what I do affects you,” Malani says. “To keep the whole community safe, we all need to behave in a certain way and make good decisions about health. And by having a highly vaccinated community, it makes sure that someone who is more vulnerable, or who doesn’t respond to the vaccine is also protected.”
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Update 08/12/21: This article has been updated with new information.