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 360 public and private colleges across the U.S. will require students to get a coronavirus vaccine, and experts expect more schools to follow suit.
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. Others, such as the 23-campus California State University system, plan to adopt mandates pending full approval by the Food and Drug Administration of at least one coronavirus vaccine.
Read on to learn how colleges are handling COVID-19 vaccinations as the fall semester draws closer.
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 prospect 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 259 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered between Dec. 14, 2020, and May 10, 2021.
As with much of American higher education, how colleges approach the issue of coronavirus vaccines varies.
Colleges generally fall into four categories: requiring vaccines; offering students incentives to get immunized voluntarily; not requiring the shots; and adopting a wait-and-see approach. The majority of schools are in the last category, according to Marsicano, who has studied institutional coronavirus responses as part of his work at the College Crisis Initiative research lab.
However, the picture should become clearer as the fall semester nears, especially if the vaccines are granted full FDA approval, Marsicano says. Pfizer and BioNTech recently applied for full approval of their coronavirus vaccine and others will follow shortly, experts predict.
“Once these vaccines receive full FDA approval, colleges and universities should have no legal issue with requiring that vaccine of their students, at least in principle, at the federal level,” Marsicano says.
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,” says Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor specializing in public health data at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign.
Jacobson adds that existing immunization requirements against mumps, measles and other infections ultimately provide legal precedent for mandates, and a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine would be no different.
But declaring vaccine mandates has invited political 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 undermining personal freedom. In Florida, for example, a new law bars 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.
Additionally, 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.
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.
And there’s the incentive of just returning to a normal college experience that isn’t distorted by the pandemic. Some colleges, such as the entire 26-school University System of Georgia, have announced that face coverings will be optional for fully vaccinated students and staff in fall 2021, providing some hope for a return to pre-pandemic practices.
“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
With many colleges taking a wait-and-see approach to vaccine mandates, 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.”