The Intersection

COVID-19 Vaccination Requirements in Higher Education

April 19, 2021

The Challenge

As COVID-19 vaccine eligibility phases have expanded to include college-age adults, institutions of higher education (IHEs) have quickly become vaccination sites for their student body. As of April 19th, 2021, all 50 states have made vaccinations available to all adults 16+. As vaccine distribution ramps up, IHEs continue to discuss the measures they will take to vaccinate their student body, in hopes of a safer return to campus for the fall 2021 semester.

Rutgers University in New Jersey became the first IHE to establish a mandate that requires students enrolling for the 2021 fall semester to provide proof they have received a coronavirus vaccine. In a statement, the school’s leadership has said that “broad immunization is critical to help stop the current pandemic and to protect our University community.” Rutgers has stated that students will be able to seek a medical or religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, and that the mandate will not apply to students enrolled in online programs.

The list of campuses implementing similar policies continues to rapidly grow. Duke University, The University of Notre Dame, Brown University, and Cornell University are some of the many residential colleges that have implemented a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for their student bodies. As institutions strive for a safe learning environment, with traditional on-campus and in-person opportunities, stakeholders must weigh policies that promote this return to normalcy.

IHEs have struggled to prevent large coronavirus outbreaks, both on and off-campus. College campuses are social spaces where the virus quickly spread through residence halls, off-campus housing, and parties. Last fall, more than 85 colleges reported over 1,000 coronavirus cases within their student bodies, and more than 680 colleges reported at least 100 cases. Various universities had to make the decision to suspend in-person courses and send students home to mitigate the spread of the virus. In North Carolina, both the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University experienced large surges in coronavirus clusters early in the fall 2020 semester, and they both made the decision to suspend in-person instruction and move most students out of campus housing. Studies also show that college outbreaks negatively impacted university staff and those in the surrounding community. Given the high rates of COVID-19 transmission on college campuses, vaccination will likely be a key step towards ensuring a return to a more typical college experience.

As IHEs aim to reconvene their student bodies on campus this fall and offer safe, in-person learning experiences, various stakeholders must consider vaccination mandates for students, staff, and other necessary personnel.


Legality Behind COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

It is not atypical for colleges and universities to require students to be vaccinated for other diseases. IHEs have long mandated vaccinations against infectious diseases such as MMR, which is required at roughly 87.5% of four-year institutions in the United States. As such, many of the institutions requiring the COVID-19 vaccine believe they have the legal grounds to implement this policy. Further, various California court cases have withstood legal challenges that are likely to be used as evidence supporting these mandates.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, studies vaccination law. While she believes IHEs can require students to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, she notes two caveats: “Vaccines are still under EUA [Emergency Use Authorization],” which brings the mandate into a grey area surrounding the established law.  Second, she expressed concern regarding students’ access to the vaccine, but she does not see this as a large barrier given the widespread vaccination efforts occurring throughout the United States.


Policy Considerations

IHEs want to prevent students from contracting the COVID-19 virus while also halting the spread of the disease to peers, faculty, staff, and the surrounding communities. However, vaccine hesitancy and questions surrounding lack of access to the vaccine continue to impact the policies explored by colleges and universities. The following policy considerations should be discussed in order to move IHEs forward to providing safe campuses in the fall.

Focus efforts on current students | Some IHEs have students living on or near campus and should consider how to best provide these students the support needed to keep students, and the surrounding community, safe. As vaccine distribution continues to progress in the United States, many IHEs have turned their COVID-19 efforts toward vaccinating their students. At the University of Texas in Austin, administrators are actively pursuing allocations of the vaccine from the state and have begun administering doses in accordance with federal and state guidelines. IHE stakeholders should consider working with their state officials to implement similar opportunities for students on and near their campuses.

Evaluate current COVID-19 procedures | Many IHEs who resumed some form of in-person instruction for the spring 2021 semester implemented various COVID-19 testing procedures to maintain the safety of students, faculty, and staff. The University of Michigan has required all students who live, work, or learn on campus, or who access campus buildings and facilities, to complete weekly coronavirus testing. Expansive testing on college campuses is important to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, yet less than half of the institutions that primarily conduct classes in an in-person or hybrid format are providing some level of asymptomatic testing. IHEs must also consider which policies to continue such as mask mandates, living accommodations, and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Vaccination Access for new students and those off-campus | University stakeholders should ensure that all students who intend to get vaccinated can do so before leaving or returning to campus. Stakeholders should consider which policies or academic schedules will promote student wellness and safety. Some of the institutions to cancel spring break include Iowa’s public universities, Kansas State University, and many more. On top of this schedule change, many institutions such as the University of South Carolina required all students, faculty, and staff who live, learn, or work on campus to show proof of testing or COVID-19 antibodies prior to their return on campus. There is much to be learned from the wide variety of tactics adopted by different institutions and policymakers should consider which policies best serve the needs of their students, faculty, and staff.

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