Why Students Do — and Don’t — Get Covid Vaccines

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Covid-19 vaccination mandates have made a big difference to college students, with 97 percent of students who attend an institution with such a requirement reporting getting the shots, compared with 75 percent of their peers at colleges with no requirement, according to a new survey.

Over all, American college students are vaccinated at a rate roughly comparable to adults across the country. But students at two-year institutions are being “left behind,” as members of an American College Health Association committee wrote in their report on the survey. Only 75 percent of two-year-college students have had at least one shot, compared with 85 percent of college students over all (and an estimated 90 percent of all American adults).

“Colleges and universities play a really important role in their communities in ensuring that students are supported in receiving Covid vaccination, including booster doses,” said Claudia Trevor-Wright, project director for the association’s Campus Covid-19 Vaccination and Mitigation Initiative. “We have the opportunity and responsibility to reach out to students at two-year institutions.”

Trevor-Wright’s group aims to increase Covid-vaccination rates among students. The group commissioned the survey, and Langer Research Associates, a private firm, administered it. More than 900 undergraduate and graduate students took the survey, which was weighted to be representative of students across the country.

Public-health experts, including those at the American College Health Association, recommend students and others get vaccinated and boosted to protect themselves from getting seriously sick or dying from Covid-19. The shots may have effects far beyond campus borders. A recent working paper found that colleges’ vaccine mandates had reduced deaths from Covid in their surrounding communities in the fall of 2021. That’s why many experts recommend vaccination requirements as well, although they differ in how hard they think college leaders should push campus communities that are reluctant.

With modeling, the Langer surveyors identified factors that were associated with students’ being vaccinated. Mandates were a big one. Among students who said their colleges had mandates, nearly one in five said they’d gotten their shots because of the requirement. For colleges in regions where mandates are a nonstarter, however, there are other heartening findings too, Trevor-Wright said. Trust in the vaccines’ safety, seeing vaccination as a community responsibility, and being encouraged by a parent, other relative, or health-care provider were all strongly and independently linked with students’ getting the shots.

Building vaccine trust, encouraging students to get their shots — “these are things colleges can absolutely do,” Trevor-Wright said. Notably, students at two-year colleges were less likely than their peers at four-year colleges to have a vaccine mandate, and were less likely to have been encouraged by their colleges to get immunized.

The Covid vaccines have been highly politicized. (The survey reflected this, with self-identified liberals and Democrats being much more likely to be vaccinated than conservatives and Republicans.) Is there really any room left to change minds and vaccine statuses among students? A little, the survey found. Among the unvaccinated, 16 percent said they “probably” or “definitely” would get a Covid shot. Groups of students who were most open to the idea were Hispanics, those who hadn’t yet been encouraged to be vaccinated, and those attending two-year colleges.

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