US campuses quickly adopting student vaccination rules

Mandates likely to accelerate in days, once autumn acceptance deadline passes

April 30, 2021
Covid vaccine
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US universities are quickly embracing requirements for students to get vaccinated against Covid for the autumn semester, with a trickle expected to become a flood as acceptance deadlines pass in the coming week.

In the month since Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey became the first major US institution to announce a vaccine mandate, about 100 others – mostly private campuses – took similar steps.

That number now seems headed for dramatic expansion once students have made their autumn commitments, said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, which tracks academia's response to the pandemic.

“A lot of institutions are holding off requiring the vaccine because they’re worried about the impact it would have on enrolment,” Dr Marsicano said.

That may not be fair to students, but such delays in revealing policy shifts represent a standard approach to enrolment management, he said. “This is not a Covid-only thing – institutions do it all the time,” he said.

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Universities have especially big reason for concern this year. While college enrolment is likely to rebound this autumn, new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows how far institutions have to go. The Clearinghouse figures show that spring undergraduate enrolment across the US fell 6 per cent from the same time last year.

The problem remains largely concentrated at two-year community colleges, where spring enrolment contracted more than 11 per cent, the Clearinghouse reported.

The delay in announcements on vaccine requirements also reflects, to some degree, the tendency among universities to wait for others to move first, Dr Marsicano said. The College Crisis Initiative has just published a study showing that phenomenon played out in announcements by campuses to shut down for the autumn 2020 semester, with institutions rapidly approving in-person formats once others in their own group took the step.

That behaviour may now repeat itself with the recent announcement by the University of California and the California State University systems that they will require their students to be inoculated this autumn once at least one Covid vaccine wins full government approval. The 23-campus California State, the nation’s biggest four-year public university system, led the sector last year in announcing that autumn’s semester would be fully online.

Many other US institutions also may wait for that same regulatory hurdle, which is likely to be met this summer, before they mandate student vaccines, Dr Marsicano said. The three Covid vaccines currently in use in the US so far have gained only emergency use approval.

Public institutions in some states, however, may need to wait longer for clarity. They include Michigan, where the Republican-controlled legislature is advancing a budget bill that would prohibit any of the state’s 15 public universities requiring vaccinations as a condition for enrolment.

The University of Michigan has already announced such a requirement for students planning to live in its dormitories. Another, Wayne State University, is offering a $10 (£7) credit for students who get vaccinated.

Opposition to vaccine mandates seems far more a product of political machinations than student sentiment, Dr Marsicano said. “The vast majority of students want to get back to normal” and they recognise vaccines as part of that process, he said.

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