Are more than 40% of unvaccinated college students really submitting fake cards?

Some colleges with COVID-19 mandates have installed policies intended to prevent the submission of false documents.
By: | September 28, 2021
Adobe Stock

To provide an added layer of protection against transmission of COVID-19, more than 1,000 colleges and universities installed vaccine mandates for the fall semester. Many have reported significant compliance, with more than 90% of populations receiving doses.

Those stout percentages provide comfort for institution leaders, but are they all legitimate? Since March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have been warning about the rise in fake COVID vaccination cards. Despite shutdowns of websites and arrests, bad actors persist in dark spaces on the web, selling them for $200 or more. Those who are unvaccinated have been purchasing them to meet job requirements and, yes, circumvent college requirements.

According to a new survey released by Intelligent.com, 46% of 1,250 unvaccinated students said they created or purchased false COVID-19 vaccination cards to meet policies at institutions that mandated vaccines. More than half say they continue to lie “in social settings” about getting the shots.

The sample size is small, so it is difficult to gauge how prevalent the practice might be in higher education, though the Associated Press reported in August concerns from dozens of faculty members and students that it is occurring. Colleges and universities that simply require students to upload photo copies of their vaccination cards without requiring any other proof might be giving unvaccinated students an opportunity to easily slip past those policies.

“These survey results reflect the challenges that colleges, like many other settings in the U.S., are facing when it comes to returning to in-person engagement and interaction,” said Intelligent managing editor Kristen Scatton. “Colleges that are mandating vaccination against COVID-19 are trying to do the right thing to protect their students, faculty, staff and communities, but they largely have to rely on the honor system because of the way COVID vaccinations are administered and documented. … The real test will be in the coming months. Hopefully, the number of vaccinated people on campus, combined with other safety protocols like masking and social distancing, will prevent severe outbreaks among college communities. However, the level of protection is probably not what it would be if everyone who says they are vaccinated actually is.”

So institutions must rely on their own policies for ensuring compliance or face the potential for students to attempt a number of strategies to get around them. Of those who were polled in the Intelligent.com survey, nearly 20% of those who said they provided false documentation attested to verbal or written statements because their institutions didn’t require further verification. Another 16% said they claimed a fake medical exemption, while 15% said they imparted religious claims that weren’t true.

Once in and approved, unvaccinated students said they are lying to dodge conflicts, uneasy conversations, pressure to get the vaccines or being shamed for not doing so, according to the survey. Among the unvaccinated, the percentage of men who lie is around 60%, while 65% of Asian students and 60% of White unvaccinated students admit to lying, percentages that far outpace women (41%), Hispanic/Latinx (48%) and Black (40%) students.

How institutions are fighting back

Heady institutions with mandates have added disclaimers during the verification process for students who are entering proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

  • The University of Illinois states that the McKinley Health Center conducts checks of students who submit their vaccine information through their portal.
  • The California State University system, in its COVID-19 Self Verification form, requires students sign an addendum stating the accuracy of information they are providing. Students may face penalties under the Student Conduct Code for falsifying information.
  • Washington State University boldly highlights the potential penalties for adding false COVID-19 verification documents: “It is illegal to submit fraudulent or counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards. Please see FBI Guidance. It is also illegal to claim an exemption or accommodation on false, misleading or dishonest grounds. Any student found to have submitted fraudulent or counterfeit records, or false, misleading or dishonest information about their vaccination status, medical need for exemption, or their sincerely held religious beliefs will be referred to the Center for Community Standards. Consequences may include but are not limited to expulsion from the university.”

Penalties for violations of the code of conduct can be severe, but those can rise for students if federal officials spot the misuse of cards. Though rudimentary in design, they contain the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Health & Human Services logos. Those who submit, purchase or sell them use those logos can be fined and face five years in prison under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1017.

Colleges and universities that do find falsified information have options, up to and including suspension and expulsion. But will they go that far?

“Will it be viewed like a student caught using a fake ID, or as an issue of plagiarism or academic dishonesty?” wonders Katie Burns, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor and a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at MIT. “Fake IDs or violations of community standards are typically handled through a restorative justice type model, helping the student to learn from the mistake they made. Issues of academic dishonesty are typically much more black and white and can progress fairly quickly to a student’s expulsion from the university.”