Why these 3 college vaccine mandates are significant

Will their requirements spark others to sign on, or will institutions continue to stand by 'encouraging' vaccination?
By: | June 23, 2021
Photo courtesy of Duke University

A slight break in patterns emerged late Wednesday among colleges and universities requiring preventive COVID-19 vaccines, trends that have leaned mainly toward select states and four-year institutions.

The University of Charleston and Bethany College became the first from the state of West Virginia to mandate vaccination of students, and the Community College of Rhode Island became one of the few two-year institutions outside of New York state to sign on.

The decisions in West Virginia were a surprise given the stance of others over the past few months in the state – including Marshall and West Virginia University, which have simply encouraged vaccines since they are still under emergency use authorization. Vaccinations had been low within the state until the past couple of weeks, when Gov. Jim Justice made public offers of unique incentives, including rifles, fishing licenses and pickup trucks for those who get them.

University of Charleston President Martin Roth had a different incentive for those who get vaccinated – a more active, traditional vibe back to campus in the fall … and restrictions for those who don’t.

“[Vaccinations] will provide students with learning, social, athletic, and other experiences without the health and safety protocols required in a non-vaccinated community,” Roth said. “We know all of you welcome the opportunity to have a campus experience with the fewest health and safety restrictions.”


More from UB: State-by-state list of institutions requiring vaccines


Meanwhile, CCRI joined the San Diego Community College District and Central Oregon Community College as one of the few systems outside New York state to impose the requirement of students. Its four campuses are allowing for exemptions – including those who operate fully online – but like most that have set ground rules for the fall, theirs will be strictly enforced for those who attend in person.

“Failure to be vaccinated or have an approved exemption will result in your inability to participate in face-to-face classes, in-person activities, and campus events,” community college leaders said in a statement to students.

Of the 505 tests it has conducted on its campuses and off-site since late March, CCRI has seen only two positive COVID-19 cases. But with the semester only a couple months away and with the Delta variant circulating throughout the U.S., the college is taking a conservative approach. Rhode Island is doing better than some states in getting populations vaccinated, but numbers of those in the 15-24 age bracket who are fully vaccinated are hovering around 40%.

Most community colleges, including those in neighboring Massachusetts, however, have opted against mandates for fear it might disproportionally affect underserved students.

More than 500 institutions are requiring vaccines, including heavyweights with ties to medical research – Harvard, New York University, Emory, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and Vanderbilt. In recent days, the University of Illinois joined the growing list of large public state systems to enact the requirements, and many that started with solely student mandates have added faculty and staff requirements, too.

There are still thousands of universities that have not, however, and a large number come from a block defined as red states – including several that have not one institution requiring them, some because they have been blocked by executive orders not allowing vaccine passports. They include Arkansas, Idaho, Florida, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.