When Will College Students Get the Coronavirus Vaccine?

When Will College Students Get the Coronavirus Vaccine?
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on March 30, 2021

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College leaders say that a return to a normal campus life depends on the COVID-19 vaccine. While college students and younger faculty and staff may be among the last in line to be inoculated, most should be eligible within the next month.

On the same day he signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, President Joe Biden urged states to expand vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1. Now, Biden says 90% of adults in the U.S. will be eligible for COVID-19 shots by April 19. He is calling on states to make all adults eligible by May 1.

The feasibility of this timeline depends on individual state rollout plans. Six states including Texas have started administering vaccines to anyone 16 or older. According to the White House, 31 states have so far said they will offer vaccinations to all adults by April 19.

Whether college students will choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine is another question. While the share of Americans who intend to get vaccinated has increased, young people aged 18-29 are among those least likely to say they'd get the shot if it were available to them today.

CDC Vaccine Phases: Who Should Get the Vaccine First?

Phase Who May Receive the Vaccination
Phase 1a Healthcare personnel, long-term care facility residents
Phase 1b Frontline essential workers, educational sector workers, people aged 75 years and older
Phase 1c People aged 65-74 years, people aged 16-64 years with underlying medical conditions
Phase 2 All other groups, including college students — "As vaccine availability increases, vaccination recommendations will expand to include more groups"

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to federal, state, and local governments about who should be first to receive the new COVID-19 vaccines, healthy college students are likely to fall into Phase 2, when the number of available vaccines is expected to increase.

In February, Biden announced that the U.S. had purchased enough vaccines for all Americans. More recently, he promised there would be enough COVID-19 vaccines for all adults by May.

Biden promises there will be enough COVID-19 vaccines for all adults by May.

Vaccination isn't necessarily a prerequisite for reopening schools. Children and young adults are at low risk for contracting the coronavirus. Growing research suggests neither young people nor schools pose a significant threat of transmission. Meanwhile, students around the world are experiencing unprecedented learning loss due to school shutdowns.

Citing community spread, college leaders have continued to delay plans "until a vaccine becomes widely available." Starting last spring, many universities froze programs and postponed events. As the vaccination rate balloons, colleges remain hopeful this fall will mark a return to normal.

Many colleges, including the large California State University system, which was among the first to move totally online last spring, announced that classes will resume in-person instruction by fall. The coronavirus vaccine could ease other mitigation strategies, but institutions will likely keep some share of learning online and maintain rules around social distancing.

Less Than Half of Young Adults Plan to Get Vaccinated

A growing share of Americans intend to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but many still have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, or vaccines in general. While most college students accept other now-common vaccinations, Pew Research Center polls show that Americans aged 18-29 are the least likely to say they'd get the vaccine.

Campus studies found similar numbers. In a survey of almost 600 graduate and undergraduate students at a Connecticut public university, 30% said they would not get the vaccine and another 20% said they weren't sure.

Polls show that about one-third of college-aged Americans do not want to get the new COVID-19 vaccine.

To help counteract students' hesitancy, marketing professor C. Kevin Synnott advises colleges to start information campaigns, which could include leaving easy-to-read info cards on dining hall tables, offering prizes for vaccine trivia games, and handing out swag.

Young people and people of color are both more likely to distrust the vaccine than other demographic groups. In November, less than half of Black respondents said they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, compared to 61% of white respondents. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has called vaccinating people of color a top priority.

Will Colleges Require the Coronavirus Vaccine?

The CDC is assigning schools a key role in vaccine distribution. Some colleges, including Northeastern University, have already begun administering COVID-19 vaccines.

When colleges are able to offer vaccines to the larger campus community, will they also require them? Most colleges require incoming students to prove they're up to date on certain vaccinations. Now, Rutgers University in New Jersey is the first college to require students get vaccinated before arriving on campus next fall.

Whether colleges can make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for all on-campus residents is up for debate. A bill from the Biden administration would pave the way. In the meantime, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers have the right to bar employees from the workplace if they refuse to get vaccinated.

Any right to require the COVID-19 vaccine awaits FDA approval for regular use. At present, COVID-19 vaccines are authorized for emergency use only. Campuses that do not require the vaccine may rely instead on running persuasive campaigns to convince students and employees to opt for vaccination on their own.

“When new vaccines come out, a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to give it a little bit of time to see what happens.’ … This is going to be a process to get out of the pandemic.”. Source: — Allison Winnike, President and CEO of the Immunization Partnership

For most vaccine policy questions, it's up to states to decide. And per a 1905 Supreme Court ruling, states wield the power to mandate vaccinations for schoolchildren and other populations.

All 50 states currently require vaccines — for illnesses like polio, measles, and tetanus — for children attending K-12 public schools. Most states, however, exempt students whose families oppose vaccinations for philosophical, religious, or medical reasons. Recent EEOC guidance allows for the same exemptions.

Immunization activists Kelly Moore and Allison Winnike told Education Week that while states may not start off mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for students, that could change down the road. According to Moore, past vaccine pushes made the mistake of mandating too quickly, scaring off an unfamiliar public.

Campuses that do not require the vaccine may rely instead on running persuasive campaigns to convince students and employees to opt for vaccination on their own.

K-12 Teachers Given Vaccine Priority Over Professors

Many states pushed educators to the front of the line to receive COVID-19 vaccines, but the grade levels they teach mattered. The K-12 workforce became a top priority nationwide, included in Phase 1 of most state vaccination schedules. College faculty and staff got the same priority in just a handful of states.

The crucial social and intellectual development that takes place during early education supports the argument for vaccinating K-12 teachers first. And for teachers' unions, fully vaccinated instructors are the ultimate prerequisite for school reopenings.

As colleges slowly return to face-to-face instruction, unions representing college workers are requesting the same protections, citing the potential for open campuses to lead to community spread. (Fall data, however, suggests that college campuses did not act as superspreaders in the way models predicted.)

While petitions circulated to include college professors in Phase 1, many institutions have already begun to inoculate older faculty and staff. In the first week of January, public colleges in West Virginia and Florida administered first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to faculty and staff.

Feature Image: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images

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