Did You Know? The Fight Over Campus Vaccine Mandates

As American higher ed prepares for the on-campus experience again, college leaders are encountering a problem: whether they can (or should) mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. The response varies by state and institution.

In states like Utah and Texas, state legislatures have banned colleges and all state entities from requiring vaccines. Other places, like North Carolina, have not done so. While the University of North Carolina system strongly recommends students to get vaccinated, it’s not clear that it has the legal authority to require vaccination. Private colleges, such as Wake Forest University and Duke University, however, have required students to get vaccinated.

Over 300 colleges will require vaccination, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, but many others are trying to incentivize voluntary vaccinations to avoid mandating it. Rowan University in New Jersey is offering $500 toward course registration and a $500 discount for housing if students get vaccinated. Other colleges, such as West Virginia University, are setting thresholds for resuming different activities and social life on campus once enough students are vaccinated. The goal is to nudge students in the right direction without punishing them or forcing their hand.

Rewarding students for getting vaccinated instead of mandating it also avoids the problem of anti-vaccine legal action. The Informed Consent Action Network sent letters to Princeton University and Rutgers University claiming that their vaccine mandates violated federal law. Other campuses may get challenged if they announce vaccine mandates, which could lead to a lawsuit or student resistance.

And student resistance may be high. One survey of a midsized college in Connecticut last December found that about 50 percent of students would get vaccinated when they could, 30 percent said they would not, and 20 percent weren’t sure. A campus that is only 50 percent or 60 percent vaccinated may struggle to function as it did before COVID-19, and colleges will need to find ways to persuade skeptical or apathetic students. For now, leaders and administrators don’t have a playbook to follow for what to do next.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.