Are colleges that hope to boost COVID-19 vaccine numbers missing a key strategy?

Researchers at Penn State and the University of Kansas say a specific form of messaging might change perception.

College leaders who are struggling to increase the numbers of students, staff and faculty getting COVID-19 vaccines, especially heading into the fall, might be overlooking a key messaging strategy.

According to new research from the University of Kansas and Penn State University, simply advocating for vaccines—or criticizing those who don’t get them—does not work as well as imparting conversion messages, which highlight experiences from individuals who have changed their stances on them.

The strategy has been utilized in philosophical and religious circles, but researchers note that many social scientists believe it could have application in the public health sphere, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The politization of the virus has led to millions of Americans refusing to get vaccinated or denouncing vaccines despite their safety and efficacy. Increasing awareness via real-life, reputable stories might transform the views for some who might be reluctant.

“We found conversion messages led to pro-vaccine attitudes and behavioral intentions in participants with high vaccine hesitancy,” said Jeff Conlin, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas. “That’s probably the biggest takeaway, along with the credibility of the message source mediating the effects of conversion messages on vaccination attitudes.”

More from UB: Why long COVID may tax higher education’s resources in 2022-23

Researchers say that presenting how an individual changed their mind is key to trying to get those on board who might be reluctant or deny their efficacy. Highlighting an individual’s initial beliefs and showing why they denounce them later on can be instrumental in helping others cut through confusion over vaccines.

“Conversion messages are derived mainly from first-person narratives, as opposed to short-form rhetorical arguments or third-person descriptions,” authors wrote. “This strategy may be especially important in the realm of vaccine acceptance messaging, which is an issue wrought with misinformation and tightly held beliefs.”

Researchers say that not all arguments need to be refutational. However, they note it is imperative that information delivered during public health crises be factual and that leaders discredit data or rhetoric they know are untrue. “Implications suggest that communicators need to consider a more precise approach in designing public health messages, especially since persuading even a small percentage of people who are vaccine-hesitant may be important in the battle for herd immunity,” they wrote.

The data on COVID and college

Although undergraduate students largely have not been impacted by serious effects of COVID-19—long COVID might be a factor for some—faculty and staff are in higher-risk groups. Around three-quarters of students have reported they’ve gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from a survey done by several universities in November 2021. It is unclear, however, how many students have gotten booster shots, and many institutions have relaxed their COVID protocols heading into summer.

The University of Kentucky is one of latest campuses to remove mask requirements indoors, but its stance on vaccines remains steadfast.

“More than 90% of our community is vaccinated — the single best defense against contracting COVID or, if exposed, to becoming seriously ill,” President Eli Capilouto said. “As new people join the UK community for the 2023 academic year, we will aggressively promote and incentivize vaccinations among those we welcome to the institution. We have demonstrated the success of such an approach here at UK through incentives and a culture of encouragement, communication, easy access and support. We will continue to require them for all new hires.”

Nearly one-third of all residents in the U.S. have not received their first doses of the vaccine. Though higher education populations in many states have outpaced non-college-goers—thanks in part to mandates and institutions raising awareness on the importance of vaccines—in others, it has been a struggle. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Wyoming all report fewer than 55% of their residents as being fully vaccinated. Less than 50% of individuals over 12 have received COVID booster doses, which offer the most protection against emerging variants.

There are new reports out of Portugal that the BA.5 variant, more transmissible than the fast-spreading stealth variant, is causing an increase in deaths. That new spinoff and its predecessor, BA.4, are beginning to circulate in the United States, and hospitalizations here continue to spike. In Wyoming and Oklahoma, positive cases are up 173% and 131% respectively in the past two weeks, while Alabama, Idaho and Arizona are all over 80%. Hospitalizations are also up more than 70% in Wyoming and Alabama. Only 11 states report a decrease in hospitalizations, almost all of them in the Northeast, where vaccination rates are 70% or higher.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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