Can universities require students to get the COVID vaccine?

Experts discuss legality of mandatory vaccinations for students

Coronavirus vaccine distribution is underway, and many university campuses—like University of Florida, University of West Virginia, Princeton University, and Boston University, among many others—are volunteering as vaccination sites. As the effort to build enough of a supply to inoculate the entire U.S. population becomes a reality, public discussion is slowly shifting from the question “Can I get the vaccine?” to “Will I be required to get it?”

College Pulse recently conducted a survey among 1,000 college students. About 71% of responders said that universities should require students to get vaccinated before returning to campus. About 19% said it should not be required, and 10% remained undecided.

Proponents of the idea say that vaccination will be the most efficient way to get life back to normal. “Our recent survey on vaccines shows students’ strong support for requiring vaccinations before returning to campus,” said College Pulse director of research Anne Schwichtenberg. “Students are eager to resume their normal on-campus routines, and while there is some hesitation about efficacy and safety associated with the vaccine, especially for students of color, a plurality of students see the vaccine as the quickest path back to normalcy.”

She also notes that the students polled preferred mandatory vaccination to social distancing policies, a nationwide mask mandate, or nationwide stay-at-home orders.

There is already a solid legal precedent for educational institutions requiring certain vaccinations as a condition of enrollment. Most universities either currently or have previously mandated students to show proof of vaccination for other diseases. The COVID-19 vaccine, said attorney Renee Mattei Myers, is no different.

“Under everything that we’ve seen, and the guidance from agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education,” she said, “it’s been stated that just like how [colleges] can require other vaccines like meningitis and measles and hepatitis for incoming students, that they could require this vaccine, as well.” Additional required vaccinations include those for rubella, chickenpox, and tuberculosis.

There is, of course, an exception to every rule. Religious, philosophical, or health-related objections will have to be taken into account. Professor Kevin Welner from the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that the vaccine is no more “required” than students are required to attend that particular school. And other schools may mandate the vaccine only in cases of an active outbreak on campus.

There are logistical issues to consider, as well. As the vaccine rolls out in phases, different parts of the country may be prioritizing or extending the vaccine’s availability to different demographics. For example, Welner relates that university students in Colorado may be eligible for the vaccine as soon as March, while young adults in New York without any pre-existing medical conditions may not get priority until later this summer.

In the meantime, says Myers, the best that universities can do is consider exemptions on a case-by-case basis and to make it as easy as possible for students to get vaccinated.

And Welner agrees, at least in theory, that the majority would be happy to comply with the requirement. “I would expect in most places, students would be more than happy to get the vaccine and start returning to enjoying college life,” he said.