More than 50 universities across the United States have announced they will require students to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to attend in-person classes or on campus activities this fall.1 Among these institutions of higher learning are Brown University, Cleveland State University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Montclair State University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and others.2 3 4 5 6
Historically, vaccinations have been a requirement for many colleges and universities, but some institutions allow for exemptions under philosophical, religious, or medical reasons.7
Rutgers University President Jonathan Hollaway, PhD said that existing medical and religious exemptions will be allowed but that simply not wanting to get the vaccine would not be an option if students wish to attend Rutgers. When asked about the lack of long-term studies for the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Hollaway stated he “doesn’t have any reservations about requiring students to receive the vaccine before long-term studies have been completed.”8
The Legality of Mandating Experimental Vaccines
There are serious questions about the legality of universities or workplaces mandating experimental COVID-19 vaccines. Many university officials believe they are within legal bounds to institute such mandates, citing existing higher education vaccination requirements. However, mandating experimental vaccines being distributed under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which have not yet been fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unprecedented. According to an article in STAT News:
The FDA has never before granted an EUA for a vaccine for the entire population, so there is no perfect precedent here. Employers, especially health care entities, and universities have, however, historically mandated vaccines.9
The Ethics of Mandating Experimental Vaccines
An issue brief from the American Council on Education published on Mar. 25, 2021 states that the legal right of higher education institutions to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students “seems likely to be upheld” and recommends universities follow existing state regulations. The brief also points out potential ethical issues such as the mandating of vaccines to marginalized populations who have historical experiences of medical discrimination, as well as the “ethical, societal, and practical” application of vaccine passports.10
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Temple University student body president Quinn Litsinger plans to get the vaccine, but that he acknowledged understanding that certain groups that have, historically, been marginalized in U.S. may be skeptical about vaccines. Litsinger observed…
I don’t think it’s my place or the place of Temple to tell communities that have historical reasons to mistrust the vaccine that they have to get it.7
Universities Explore Incentives for Vaccinated Students
While many universities will not require the vaccine in order to attend classes, some institutions are exploring the idea of giving financial incentives to those students who choose to get vaccinated. Such incentives include tuition breaks and discounted or free tickets to athletic events for those who choose to be vaccinated.10
Peter Lake, JD, a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law in Florida said, “The carrot often works as well as the stick, sometimes a lot better.”7
Many college officials have stated that they believe that a vaccine is their only path back to normal operations with the hopes of achieving vaccine acquired herd immunity on campus,5 7 even though it remains unclear if the COVID-19 vaccines only protect against severe COVID-19 disease rather than reliably preventing symptomatic and asymptomatic infection and transmission of SARS-CoV-2.11
The FDA has granted EUA to three COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to distribute their experimental vaccines in the U.S. based only on evidence that the vaccines prevent symptoms of COVID-19 disease and reduce the likelihood of being hospitalized or dying from the disease.
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1 Thomason A. Here’s a list of colleges that will require students or employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The Chronicles of Higher Education Apr. 21, 2021.
2 CBS Philly University Of Pennsylvania Requiring Students Receive COVID-19 Vaccine To Return To Campus This Fall. Apr. 22, 2021.
3 Goldman J. Montclair State joins Rutgers as 2nd state university to require COVID vaccines for students. NJ.com Apr. 22, 2021.
4 Heyboer K. Princeton joins growing list of colleges requiring COVID vaccine for students. NJ.com Apr. 21, 2021.
5 Nadworny E. More colleges say they’ll require students to have covid-19 vaccines for fall. NPR Apr. 11, 2021.
6 O’Donnell C. Rutgers COO: Students Who Don’t Want Vaccine Should Consider Gap Year, Transferring. TAP IP Apr. 20, 2021.
7 Snyder S. Should college students be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine? It’s too early for colleges to decide. The Philadelphia Inquirer Jan. 20, 2021.
8 Some colleges are requiring students to get the COVID-19 vaccine – but legal challenges may loom. CBS News Apr. 14, 2021.
9 Reiss D, Cohen G, Schachar C. Authorization status is a red herring when it comes to mandating COVID-10 vaccination STAT News Apr. 5, 2021
10 Requiring (or urging) COVID-19 vaccinations at colleges and universities for fall 2021. American Council on Education Mar. 25, 2021
11 Rouan R. Fact Check: CDC recommends masks in most cases even after COVID-19 vaccines. USA Today Apr. 22, 2021.
12 No Evidence COVID-19 Vaccines Will Block Spread of Coronavirus. The Vaccine Reaction Jan. 10, 2021.