The coronavirus vaccine is just around the corner, but many Americans — including one-third of college-aged adults — plan to hold off on getting vaccinated.

When Will College Students Get the Coronavirus Vaccine?

  • Healthy college students will have to wait until April or later to receive the vaccine.
  • However, variable rollout plans and vaccine shortages could cause significant delays.
  • Colleges say high vaccination coverage is a prerequisite for normal campus life.
  • Less than half of college-aged adults actually intend to get vaccinated.

College leaders say that a return to a normal campus life depends on the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the incoming Joe Biden administration, reopening schools and vaccinating teachers are top priorities. But healthy college students could be among the last in line to be inoculated.

Most college students will wait until at least April, when, Dr. Anthony Fauci says, everyone who wants the vaccine will be able to receive one. However, vaccine distribution depends on state agencies and their individual rollout plans, and demand has far outstripped supply in many areas. This could mean college students and other healthy adults will have to wait significantly longer than official projections.

Whether enough college students will voluntarily receive the vaccine is another question. Although the share of Americans who intend to get the coronavirus vaccine has increased, young people aged 18-29 are among those least likely to say they would 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 the 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 vaccine, healthy college students are likely to fall into Phase 2, when the number of available vaccines is expected to increase.

A vaccine 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.

Still, college leaders continue to delay most plans "until a vaccine becomes widely available." Many colleges froze programs and postponed events. Now, colleges are hopeful that next fall will bring a return to normal. The California State University system — among the first to move totally online last spring — has now announced that classes would resume in-person instruction by fall 2021.

The coronavirus vaccine should ease other mitigation strategies, but higher education 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

The less effective the vaccine is at staunching the spread of the coronavirus, the more people who will need to receive it. A growing share of Americans intend to get vaccinated, but many still have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, or vaccines in general.

While most college students accept other now-common vaccinations, polls show that about one-third of college-aged Americans do not want to get the new vaccine. 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 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. According to Pew Research Center, in November less than half of Black respondents said they would definitely or probably get vaccinated, compared to 61% of white respondents. The incoming Biden administration has called vaccinating people of color a top priority.

Will Colleges Require the Coronavirus Vaccine?

Educators are high on the list to receive COVID-19 vaccines, and the CDC is assigning schools a key role in their distribution. Some colleges, including Northeastern University, have already begun administering COVID-19 vaccines. For now, the vaccines are going to Phase 1 individuals: healthcare workers, police, and first responders.

But 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. Harvard University is exploring whether it can legally require the COVID-19 vaccine, too.

Whether colleges can make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for all on-campus residents could hinge on federal decisions. 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; however, that right will only exist after the vaccines are FDA-approved for regular use. Currently, they're authorized for emergency use only.

“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.”

Allison Winnike, President and CEO of the Immunization Partnership

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

Currently, all 50 states 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. The recent guidance from the EEOC 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 into the vaccine on their own.

National Vaccination Rates Drop Amid the Pandemic

Routinely recommended vaccines to prevent diseases and infections, such as pertussis, meningococcal meningitis, and cancers caused by HPV, reached historically high coverage rates in recent years. But the pandemic threatens to reverse those gains.

Orders for adolescent and childhood vaccines have decreased since mid-March, when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency. Concerns over overcrowding led local hospitals to cancel elective procedures, and a range of health concerns have begun to sprout up as a result.

While scientists and educators strategize to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to as many people as possible, the CDC says it's essential to keep other vaccine-preventable diseases covered.

Feature Image: Javier Zayas Photography / Moment / Getty Images